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Chernobyl disaster was the worst nuclear meltdown in history. 33 years on, the radioactive threat still exists, the exclusion zone, however, has turned into a tourist magnet.

Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, 26 April 1986: reactor number four suffers a catastrophic explosion exposing the core and throwing clouds of radioactive material. Fire burns uncontrollably. The death of two people just after the explosions, the blazing fires and hospitalization of dozens firefighters and workers, evacuation next day after the disaster of nearly 50 000 citizens of Pripyat, the nearby city, built in the 1970s to house workers at the plant.

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The Soviet Union eventually evacuated 116,000 people, establishing a 30km exclusion zone around the reactor. 600 000 soviet people were involved in the disaster recovery and the contaminated zone deactivation. The clean up of the surrounding area is expected to continue for decades; scientists estimate that parts may remain uninhabitable for up to 20,000 years.

Since the disaster Pripyat became an abandoned ghost town and is now used as a laboratory to study fallout patterns. The Chernobyl catastrophe cost billions in damages. Only Belarus, thе country next to Chernobyl zone had 23% of its territory contaminated. The terrible experience of the Chernobyl tragedy served as a lesson for humanity. The reasons that led to the Chernobyl accident were taken into account when designing all subsequent nuclear power plants in the Soviet Union and all over the world. Today there are about 450 nuclear power reactors operating in 30 countries providing over 10% of the world's electricity.

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More than 30 years after the accident in Chernobyl , the exclusion zone, eerily quiet, is now full of life. Many trees have regrown and the numbers of some wildlife increased (there is seven times more wolves in the zone than in the nearby reserves)…all due to the absence of humans.

Dark tourism

Despite the danger (or because of it), the Chernobyl meltdown today has another unforeseen legacy; the region is a tourist magnet. In 2011, the same year of the Fukushima disaster, that had the same international level of the catastrophe as Chernobyl, the city in Ukraine was officially declared a tourist attraction. Today, thousands are flocking to the see Pripyat that had been abandoned in a rush and turned into a ghost town. Pripyat was recently deemed safe to visit for short periods and has now become one of Ukraine’s most popular attractions. Like any dark tourism site, many locals have reservations about opening it up for outsiders and recently, a number of social media influencers have come under fire for taking insensitive photographs at the site and not showing enough respect for those affected by the catastrophe.

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But the new HBO drama ‘Chernobyl’ has sparked again a renewed interest in the place and the catastrophe that occurred there. The miniseries - a mix of real events and fictional accounts - immediately became a hit when it was released. The increased number of tourists travelling to the site is expected to start yet another debate: how should we commemorate a human-made disaster without turning the site into an adventure theme park?

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HBO's series was watched with great interest in the UK and generated very emotional reactions, seen everywhere in the social media.

Chernobyl filming locations

When the creators of the TV series were scouting out locations, they found a carbon copy of the nuclear power station suitable to film some of the most shocking scenes…in Lithuania. A lot of the action was shot at the, now being decommissioned, Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant (INPP), built in the same era as Chernobyl.

A short drive from Vilnius, visitors can book a tour of the plant’s controlled zone, home to the reactor and turbine rooms. The INPP visit should be booked two months in advance for the two-and-a-half-hour tour, with a maximum of two groups (15 people per group) allowed daily. Just like the cast and crew of Chernobyl, visitors will need to first store all mobile phones, cameras and other personal belongings, and then remove all outer clothing and step into protective suits and footwear. The power plant is gradually being decommissioned but is still active and employs around 2,000 people; it will be fully dismantled by 2038.The most fascinating part of the tour is the possibility to talk with employees who are happy to talk about their life and work at the plant.

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It’s now possible to visit other Chernobyl filming locations – which seems as the best alternative to the actual disaster site tour. You can not only enter the INPP but also visit the Visaginas municipality, that was built to house the nuclear plant workers…the same way the Pripyat was created for the Chernobyl plant employees.

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In Visaginas, you can even tour the plant simulator; it was first used to train workers and explore solutions for emergency situations and then served as a model for the Chernobyl drama’s creative team. The Visaginas municipality, once home to 34000 people, now has fewer than 20000 residents. The town has just 14 streets and no traffic lights – planned to ensure that in the event of an evacuation, there would be no delays. To this day, residents have to take their driving tests in the neighbouring town of Utena.

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