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Travel

A Fun Day Out at the Other Chernobyl

For some reason they let me in a place that could destroy the planet.

by ALEX HOBAN
29 November 2011, 9:55am

Lithuania can't decide which way to look these days. Fed up of the Russians breathing down their necks, they're gagging for some of that sweet financial instability and violent social upheaval the world has come to associate with Eurozone membership. But when Brussels told them they could only join the Euro-club if they shut down their massive nuclear power station, they got into a massive sulk.

Given that Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant was built from the same blueprints as Chernobyl, the site of the worst nuclear disaster in human history, the Lithuanians' love of their mutant factory might seem unreasonable to you. But that's because you don't live in Visaginas, the isolated town in the far east of the country built completely from scratch by the Soviets in the 1970s purely to house Ignalina's worker army.

Actually, not many people do live in Visaginas any more. The plant's staff has withered to just 200, though at one time 5000 people went days on end without seeing the sun as they made sure the most powerful nuclear reactor in the world didn't spew its filthy green muck all over the Eastern bloc. At its peak, Ignalina provided 70 percent of Lithuania's power, and, packing a 1500 megawatt-punch, made twin brother Chernobyl look like a complete pussy in the baby-warping stakes.

Since the reactor's two-tier decomissioning in 2004 and 2009, the uranium rods are cooling and the power is slowly being downgraded until the place is ready to mothball. I decided it'd be more fun to visit the deathbed of a nuclear reactor than hang around Vilnius with a recently befriended Australian sex tourist like everybody else does.

My decision to shun Antipodeans and sex slavery came at a price, though: Getting to Visaginas took fucking ages. I ended up travelling 14 hours by bus, train and taxi. Most of the time I was alone, except for shipments of dozing army cadets being shuttled around various base camps in the Lithuanian forests. 

And this is Visaginas: A collection of prefab housing blocks plonked in the middle of a forest. Because nothing in Visaginas is more than 35 years old, the whole place feels unreal and temporary, like a Communist mirage or Butlins if people went to Butlins to mope around near a massive nuclear reactor thinking about death.

Doesn't this remind you of ATP? The children of the Nuclear Generation were into rusting geodesic domes before they were cool.

The power station itself is another short drive from the town centre. For some reason it took me half an hour to find a taxi driver who was willing to take me over there, maybe it was the massive camera around my neck, IDK.

Eventually we arrived at the doorstep of the monolith that embodied an era of Socialist hope: cheap and clean energy for all, solidarity amongst the common man and a fist in the face of the capitalist pigs of the West.

Arranging access was a laborious process. Before I arrived, they warned me that I would be strictly monitored at all times and that if I took photos of anything they thought might re-start the Cold War, I'd have my camera smashed and I'd be forced to swallow a plutonium bomb. The bastards took my camera off me at the end of my visit and deleted about half the photos, so what you're about to see represents the officially sanctioned side of the operation, luckily it's still all pretty cool.

After getting kitted out in hard hats and three layers of protective material – which I was not allowed to photograph – our guide took us into this large, welcoming ante-chamber. I can't remember what the guide said it was used for. It might just look like a load of levers and pipes and shit, but it's more exciting when you're there, because you can convince yourself that if you pull those levers and hit the red buzzers in the right order you could destroy the planet.

When I asked the guide what that green branch was doing hanging there, she stopped and laughed maniacally that: "IT IS FOR THE DECORATION!!!!" Who said Eastern European nuclear plant workers don't have a sense of humour?

Next, we took a lift up nine storeys to get to the top of the nuclear reactor. It was lit up like a boutique fetish club and had that same funny smell of synthetic chemicals and crotch sweat to it. You know the one I mean.

And, just like in a boutique fetish club full of closeted sex partiers enjoying the secret half of their double lives, every one of these squares is hiding an incredibly potent uranium rod. Switch one of these guys on, and you've got enough power to kickstart a war. This is basically what Ahmadinejad sees when he falls asleep at night.

Oh gawd, they left the top off this one! How embarrassing. The guide went red. This is how things like Chernobyl happen, you big idiots.

Every now and then when the scientists do need to play hot potato with a large piece of ultra-hot radioactive material, they have these special microwave oven things they can use to manhandle the rods without unleashing enough gamma rays to turn them into deformed Lithuanian Superheroes.

I think that's Russian for "Tuck in your testicles unless you want kids with three arms."

These spent fuel pools are over 40 metres deep, with over-worked uranium rods being stored and cooled in the water for up to 20 years whilst they slowly give up their radioactivity. At the bottom of the pool special racks keep the rods from touching each other – if they accidentally knock swords, there's a risk they'll set off a nuclear chain reaction, which is a game of dominos none of us wanna end up playing.

They had these little towels hanging everywhere. I wondered what they were meant to dry, given that the only liquid I could see were the massive pools of glowing green slime beneath my feet.

Finally we headed up to mission HQ. Even up in here everyone's required to dress like a bakery assistant. 

If you haven't worked it out yet, I have a hard-on for Soviet kitsch, so standing in front of this wall of archaic process monitors in the 1970s wood-panelled control room basically had me rigid with socialist bonhomie. This is surely what Lenin had in mind when he dreamt of constructing a utopian future through technology – or at least a panopticon society built on the priciple of everyone being watched and kept under control for every minute of the day. 

Because the nuclear bakery never sleeps, its doughboys remain on-call for several days at a time – hence them having gym equipment installed at arm's length from the control panel so they can keep fit whilst they wait for some kind of problem to erupt. It's entirely possible that the shift manager at Chernobyl was doing benchpresses when he should have been pressing the OFF button during that fateful night in 1986. 

Taking a photo like this prior to 1992 would have resulted in me getting shot in the head.

Science and technology were very important parts of Soviet identity, so at this point I basically felt like God.

The whole time I was in the plant I was weaving in and out of corridors and laboratories where photos were strictly forbidden. Finally, we were taken to the decontamination room where we stripped off and had all our bits and belongings tested with this large vibrator to make sure it was safe to let us back into society. After a day in the plant, my radioactivity had increased by about 1.8 percent, which is just about the right amount to come away feeling like the trip was worth it.

There were a surprising amount of babes working at Ignalina, by the way. Maybe I should have taken more photos of them rather than going mad with the pictures of switches and levers.

When we had to stick our hands and feet in this hulking metal unit, it kept telling us in broken computerised English to "COME, PLEASE, CLOSER." At the end of a long day, it was nice to hear a familar voice and to feel wanted.

So, as another day goes by, another day of potentially catastrophic nuclear crisis is averted at the other Chernobyl. Time for this man and everyone else in the factory to go home to a locally farmed dinner of nuclear borscht, proud in the knowledge that it's thanks to them the world has one less Fukushima to be worrying about.

ALEX HOBAN

@alex_hoban

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