HBO’S ‘Ch­er­nobyl’ sparks tours, stokes fears in Lithua­nia

Global Times US Edition - - LIFE - Page Ed­i­tor: xuli­[email protected]­al­

Walk­ing along the top of Lithua­nia’s de­com­mis­sioned nu­clear re­ac­tor, the set of HBO’S crit­i­cally ac­claimed Ch­er­nobyl TV se­ries, tourist Vy­tas Mik­naitis says he’s not “afraid at all.”

“They know what they’re do­ing,” the re­tired com­puter en­gi­neer from Chicago says, re­fer­ring to or­ga­niz­ers of the three­hour tour of the Ig­nalina power sta­tion in eastern Lithua­nia.

Sim­i­lar in de­sign to Ch­er­nobyl, some 450 kilo­me­ters away, the Ig­nalina re­ac­tor pro­vided the back­drop for the show’s out­door scenes, shot in 2018.

The Baltic state’s only nu­clear power plant built in Soviet times was open to the pub­lic even be­fore the Ch­er­nobyl drama first aired in May but has since seen a steady uptick in vis­i­tors on the heels of the show’s suc­cess.

Tourists don white over­alls, walk on top of the re­ac­tor and tour the var­i­ous work sta­tions, in­clud­ing a com­mand post built to re­sem­ble the one in the se­ries.

They can even pre­tend to be the pro­tag­o­nists push­ing the var­i­ous but­tons.

Ig­nalina plant spokes­woman Natal­ija Survila-gle­bova said that the se­ries had at­tracted a new stream of vis­i­tors, mostly Lithua­ni­ans but also for­eign tourists from coun­tries like Poland, Latvia and Bri­tain.

Last month, there were 900 vis­i­tors, she told AFP, adding that tours were “al­most com­pletely booked through the end of the year.”

Due to the on­go­ing dis­man­tling work, tours are only open to adults.

De­com­mis­sioned site

The Soviet Union’s Ch­er­nobyl plant, in what is now Ukraine, was the scene of the world’s worst nu­clear dis­as­ter, when one of its re­ac­tors ex­ploded in 1986 dur­ing test­ing.

It pol­luted a big part of Europe, with the area im­me­di­ately around the power plant the worst af­fected.

In re­cent years, the aban­doned site has be­come a “dark tourism” des­ti­na­tion, even be­fore the epony­mous TV drama that has picked up 19 Emmy nom­i­na­tions.

Lithua­nia, which like Ukraine is a for­mer Soviet repub­lic, be­gan de­com­mis­sion­ing Ig­nalina in De­cem­ber 2009.

The Euro­pean Union made its clo­sure a con­di­tion of the small coun­try’s 2004 en­try into the bloc as the plant had two re­ac­tors that were the same model as those at Ch­er­nobyl.

Drab is fab

Ch­er­nobyl tours have also sprung up in other parts of Lithua­nia where the se­ries was filmed, in­clud­ing the capital, Vil­nius.

Vis­i­tor Vy­tau­tas Kas­tanauskas, who works in tourism, mar­veled at how the pro­duc­ers were able to re­cast parts of the pic­turesque city as a Soviet-era in­dus­trial out­post.

“The at­mos­phere of the time and the na­ture of the re­la­tion­ships be­tween peo­ple, ev­ery­thing was recreated per­fectly in the se­ries,” the 47-year-old, who ex­pe­ri­enced Soviet times, told AFP.

The north­ern Fabi­joniskes neigh­bor­hood was trans­formed into Pripyat, a city of nearly 50,000 peo­ple near Ch­er­nobyl that was aban­doned af­ter the dis­as­ter.

The makers of Ch­er­nobyl used the drab, gray dis­trict, with row upon row of Soviet-era hous­ing blocks, as the lo­ca­tion to shoot Pripyat’s mass evac­u­a­tion.

And one young Lithua­nian has even re­fur­bished his grand­par­ents’ Fabi­joniskes apart­ment in the Soviet style and opened it up to vis­i­tors and Airbnb stays.

Ju­rate Pazikaite, of the Vil­nius Film Of­fice, says that the se­ries has “fo­cused a lot of at­ten­tion” on the city of around half a mil­lion peo­ple, putting it on the map as a prime lo­ca­tion for film­mak­ers.

Tax breaks for pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies in­tro­duced in 2014 have lured a grow­ing num­ber of crews, she said.

The BBC’S 2016 minis­eries adap­ta­tion of Leo Tol­stoy’s War and Peace cast Vil­nius as both 19th-cen­tury Moscow and the Aus­trian Alps.

A new HBO drama se­ries, Catherine the Great starring Os­car win­ner He­len Mir­ren, has also partly been shot in the Lithua­nian capital.

Emergency io­dine, sirens

But the Ch­er­nobyl se­ries is not only gen­er­at­ing cu­rios­ity and pride in Lithua­nia.

It has also fed into un­ease that was al­ready felt over a new nu­clear plant, set to open in neigh­bor­ing Be­larus.

Spear­headed by the Rus­sian state energy cor­po­ra­tion, Rosatom, the plant, fea­tur­ing two re­ac­tors, each with a ca­pac­ity of 1,200 megawatts, is ex­pected to go on­line later this year.

Lithua­nia says that the fa­cil­ity in the north­west­ern Be­laru­sian town of Ostro­vets, just 20 kilo­me­ters from its bor­der, does not meet safety stan­dards. Minsk rejects the claim. “The Ch­er­nobyl se­ries has af­fected us deeply, my friends and I talk about this topic [nu­clear risk],” says Ieva Nagyte, a 27-year-old, who works at the Vil­nius Academy of Arts.

“If the Ostro­vets nu­clear re­ac­tors ex­ploded, I’m not sure we’d know what to do,” she told AFP.

How­ever, Lithua­nian au­thor­i­ties are pre­par­ing for the worst – they have stock­piled io­dine tablets used to ward off cer­tain forms of ra­di­a­tion poi­son­ing, es­tab­lished evac­u­a­tion routes and are test­ing emergency sirens, ac­cord­ing to the in­ter­nal af­fairs min­istry.

Photo: IC

A spe­cial­ist works at the con­trol panel of the Ig­nalina nu­clear power plant in Vis­ag­i­nas, some 160 kilo­me­ters north­east of the capital Vil­nius, Lithua­nia.

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