Meet Chernobyl’s unlucky Lithuanian sister

brendan harding
Aug 13, 2019 · 11 min read
Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant and ventilation towers — Photo by Brendan Harding

The curse of guilt by association can be a fiercely damning thing.

If you have a relative, for example, who is guilty of some terrible and heinous deed, should you be tarred with the same brush? I don’t think so. But there are others — many others in fact — who are far quicker to judge and pass sentence.

One such family association, which has lately come to worldwide attention, is the connection between the infamous Ukranian nuclear power plant, Chernobyl, and its Lithuanian sister, Ignalina. This renewed association is largely due to the blockbuster status of the recent HBO TV mini-series, ‘Chernobyl’, recounting events before, during, and after the ill-fated nuclear power plant’s catastrophic destruction in April 1986. An event of such tragic proportions that the final number of those who died immediately, and subsequently, and those who still suffer the lasting effects of the calamity has yet to be finalized.

For whatever reason, the world has become consumed by Chernobyl, making the five-part production the highest-rated TV series of all time. In fact, the show has had such an impact on viewers that both Chernobyl and Ignalina — where much of the mini-series was shot — have seen a huge upsurge in experience tourism.

But what exactly is the association between these two geographically estranged sisters?

Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant exterior — Photo by Brendan Harding

The Soviet dream becomes a nightmare

Designed and constructed during the heyday of the Soviet Union, both Chernobyl and Ignalina were constructed using similar techniques, expertize, and materials, and both centered on the use of the hugely powerful Soviet RBMK reactors.

In fact, both plants were so similar, and operated on similar grounds, that after the incident at Chernobyl thousands of Ignalina’s highly-skilled workforce were ordered to Ukraine to help their counterparts with containment and to maintain the working status of the remaining reactors, despite the now obvious health implications. But that’s a story for later.

This damning connection was the death knell for Ignalia, its workers, and for Lithuania’s self-sufficiency in power generation.

One of the stipulations for the newly independent Republic of Lithuania’s acceptance into the folds of the European Union was the decommissioning of the INPP. This decision came in the light of the Chernobyl disaster when the finger of guilt by association was pointed squarely at Ignalina.

Despite the INPPs impressive safety record up to that point, there were fears — rightly or wrongly — that Ignalina was a second disaster waiting to happen. Lithuania was told in no uncertain terms, that if they wanted to join the party they had to dress for the occasion.

And so they did. Decommissioning of the plant began in 2004 and is expected to continue until 2038. The ‘Chernobyl’ TV series, along with the INPPs commitment to complete closure of the plant, are both factors influencing the location’s increasing popularity with tourists and selfie-seekers.

The road to Ignalina — Photo by Brendan Harding

The growing appeal of beauty and the beast

Geographically, Ignalina is sited in probably one of the most idyllic corners of Lithuania, close to both the Latvian and Belarussian borders.

The immediate landscape surrounding the INPP and the nearby town of Visaginas — the newest town in Lithuania, built entirely to cater to the needs of the plant’s workers — is a land of passively rolling hills patrolled by ever-circling buzzards, where quaint wooden houses bedecked with the giant nests of storks are concealed among groves of fruit trees. A place where great and ancient forests dominate the horizon, and where herds of ever-alert deer graze peacefully in the meadows.

And somewhere out there, amongst all of this natural beauty, sits the Ignalina nuclear power plant, where visitors are flocking to experience something unique for themselves.

Where nature ends and industry begins — Photo by Brendan Harding

Time to get suited up

Before arriving at the actual power plant the secret that lies deep inside the forest has already hinted at its presence. For several kilometers, long before your first sighting of the gigantic red and white ventilation towers, the road to INPP is flanked by industrial-sized steel pipes carrying hot water — a by-product of the nuclear process — to the homes of the workers in nearby Visaginas. Then, as you near the complex you drive beneath one of those giant pipes, looped overhead across the road like some kind of futuristic Arc de Triomphe, this is where the trees stop and the industry begins.

There can be no denying the brutal Sovietic look of the complex. Big, functional rectangular buildings of concrete. Sharp angles, rows of identical windows, orange brick office buildings, neatly planned roads and roundabouts, bus stop shelters, everything designed to be functional.

Safety first, suited up and ready for the INPP tour — Photo courtesy of SE Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant

Hope you like white

If you’re taking a tour of the NPP you can be assured that the emphasis is on safety and security. However, you should also be prepared for the preparations which can take anything up to 40 minutes before even setting foot inside the working plant area. Passport checks, document inspections, body scans and pat-downs are all part of the experience.

Next, you are escorted to the changing rooms — ladies first — asked to strip to your underwear before being suited up in somehow protective white trousers, shirts, socks, shoes, over-jackets, headscarves, gloves, and the one exception to the rule of white a blue or orange hard hat to pull the whole ensemble together. Oh, and not to forget the all-important dosimeter — for measuring ambient radioactivity — which will be assigned to one or two members of your tour group. Then, it’s time to go.

Touring the soviet-era corridors of Ignalina — Photo courtesy of SE Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant

Welcome to the machine

“Our first stop will be the Reactor Room,” Jurgita the guide announces, igniting a nervous volley of whispers from the group. The reactor room, the place where the science and magic happen at an atomic level, also, the place where if things go wrong, they go horribly wrong.

The journey to the Reactor Room seems to amplify the Soviet atmosphere of the place.

Miles and miles of identical-looking corridors, cloned overhead piping, monotonously colored lime green or pale blue walls, and hundreds of mirror-image doors concealing God knows what, and bearing signs in Cyrillic script, with a token nod to Lithuanian — don’t forget, 90% of the workers at INPP were relocated here from right across Russia and the Soviet Union. Russian is the lingua franca here.

Along with 90% of the plant’s signage being printed in Cyrillic, everything also bears a number. Every component of the NPP must be accountable for, screws, brushes, window frames, door handles, piping, light switches, plug sockets, even the steps of the worn metallic stairs have all been allocated their own numbers. Accountability is something the Soviet machine did very well.

Along the way, Jurgita stops again and points to a wall-mounted container that looks something like a bucket with a lid, connected to a thick metal pipe which disappears into the concrete of the wall. “Does anyone know what this is?” she asks. Nobody did. “This is for the wastewater which is used to mop the floors,” she says, “nothing inside the NPP can be allowed to mix with the outside world without first being checked for levels of radioactivity”.

Standing on top of the Reactor Room’s ‘Pyatachyok’ — Photo courtesy of SE Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant

Meeting the little pig

The tour group steps through several super-thick concrete and metal doors — which everyone stops to touch in an attempt to reassure themselves — and into the vast bunkerlike space of INPPs reactor room.

This is literally the core of the plant where one of the RBMK-1500 reactors still lives and breathes, although no longer producing electricity. Beneath our feet, quite literally, is a circular construction of metal squares, some colored and bearing numbers, this is the Pyatachyok (the piglet, in Russian) so-called because its shape resembles that of a pig’s snout.

Cute names aside, 7 meters beneath our feet — swaddled in concrete, sand, and steel — were suspended the 11-meter fuel rods containing the uranium required to fuel the nuclear reaction. This reaction heated the water which was turned to steam and powered the huge generators which fed life to all of Lithuania.

The fuel rods — and regulator rods, which control the heating and cooling process — had to be removed approximately every five years. In the corner of the reactor room, a giant yellow crane-like contraption, bearing the Ignalina coat of arms — a stork — is charged with safely replacing the rods. The process is fully automated from an aerial control room, set behind a super-reinforced glass window. To enter the reactor room during the removal and installation process would mean almost certain death.

Monitoring the plant inside the Control Room — Photo courtesy of SE Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant

Control freaks

Next on the list — again through miles of carbon copy corridors — the tour continues with a visit to the plant’s Control Room. There is where the hand of brutalist Soviet design can be fully appreciated. Not that the panels of the semi-circular control console needed to be beautiful, they needed to be functional, but even for the Soviet mind this level of advanced functionality almost seems to go too far beyond the call of duty.

Control Room workers have to spend a minimum of three years in an exact replica simulator of this room, learning the functions of the buttons, knobs, flashing lights, monitors, and dials which were the key to the safe operation of the plant. And for many long years, they provided that function in the safest and most dedicated manner,

But now, because of the plant’s decommissioning process, only one solitary white-coated worker sat behind the controls looking somewhat bored with his station in life. Another group of tourists, another batch of questions to answer, perhaps the highlight of his day — at least, let’s hope so.

The decommissioning of the giant INPP turbines — Photo courtesy of SE Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant

Almost an act of insult

The next stop on the tour is not by any means spectacular but comes as probably the most poignant part of the whole experience.

Inside that massive concrete structure that once housed the plant’s four giant turbines, the sound of the whirring rotors has been replaced by the sound of steel-cutting equipment tearing the plant’s components to bite-sized, manageable chunks for resale via worldwide scrap-metal auctions.

In this final act, picking the bones of the carcass almost seems like an insult to the very ones who were first hired to undertake the gargantuan task of construction, implementation, and operation. It is perfectly understandable that the workers who operated the plant safely, and with great pride, now feel some level of resentment of the tour groups who pass them in the corridors. It is almost as if they are asking, ‘Why didn’t you come we were operational, proud, and safe?’

Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on which side of the nuclear debate you stand, all nuclear plants are designed with one eye fixed firmly on its eventual decommissioning. Funds are even put aside at the outset for this purpose.

However, in the case of Ignalina, the NPP was left to fend for itself after the collapse of the Soviet Union. There were no funds in place, the tab for the entire program is being partly funded by the European Union, and the Lithuanian government, putting great strains on the country financially.

Each year that strain is growing even tighter. Of course, the EU has committed to part-funding the decommissioning process for all our sakes, but there are many who think that the situation is already under control and no longer in need of funding. They are wrong. Even when the site is returned to being a ‘brown-field’ site, the soviet legacy will continue forever.

What is the future for Ignalina? — Photo by Brendan Harding

The final reaction

So, once the plant is fully decommissioned, and the unsafe nuclear materials put into secure storage for hundreds of years, or in the case of some of the plant’s most deadly residue for as long as man walks the planet, what will become of Ignalina and its inhabitants?

Will the newest city in Lithuania simply cease to exist once the young people have left in search of employment, and the promise of a better life? Or will the fact that more care for the environment is practiced here than in many other parts of the world ensure that tourism will come to the rescue?

INPP constantly monitors the environment on a microscopic scale — both inside and outside the plant. In fact, Ignalina’s monitoring of the environment is so detailed the plant’s scientists were able to detect the effects of another nuclear disaster, Japan’s Fukushima, 5,000 miles away, almost immediately after the nuclear event occurred.

Can nature tourism come to Ignalina’s rescue? — Photo by Brendan Harding

What is the future for Chernobyl’s Lithuanian sister?

There can be no doubt that Ignalina and the surrounding countryside, forests, lakes, wildlife, and unspoiled nature can become a huge source of enjoyment for many. However, to take a more realistic view, Lithuania is not exactly the center of the world for tourism, despite the best efforts of everyone concerned.

Perhaps what Ignalina and its people really need is the arrival of new industry and the promises that come with it. Over the years during the decommissioning process, there have been many rumors of large-scale foreign investment, so far none of these rumors have come to fruition. But maybe in the future. There can be no doubt that the INPP workers and their families are highly-skilled and dedicated to keeping their city alive and vibrant, whatever that may take.

In the meantime, the small amount of money generated by tours of INPP goes some way towards oiling the joints of the aging machine. Plus, the experience of taking a tour in a piece of living history, meeting the people who helped to shape that history, and hearing their stories first-hand is an experience that not many people have had.

Lithuanian-based travel gift company, Tinggly offer experience tours to Ignalina, and in some small way, once you’ve visited the plant, and met the people charged with its care, only then can you begin to tell the stories that will finally put to rest the image of Ignalina as Chernobyl’s unlucky Lithuanian sister.

Tinggly