Visiting Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant is a must-do excursion, while it is still possible! The plant is being decomissioned, and with every day passing, there are less and less rooms available for sightseeing. It is very uncommon to be allowed to visit a nuclear power plant, and currently it is possible to do so in Europe. Read more about our experience of doing so!
Practical tips on visiting Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant
Booking of the Ignalina NPP tour: should be done through the Ignalina NPP website. Choose the 3h tour. Pregnant people and anyone below the age of 18 is not allowed to enter (but can visit the exhibit in the visitor center). There are stairs to walk on during the tour, so you have to be in good health to apply for the tour. There are very few tour dates available in English every month, and the booking opens 2 months ahead on the first day of the month. Tours cost 70 euros and sell out completely in the first day. There are sometimes group tours arranged by tour operators, but since I don’t have personal experience with any of them, I can only recommend the actual facility tour.
Hotel: we stay at Kornealita. While the design is dated, the hotel was impeccably clean. It has a restaurant to get dinner at and breakfast was included in the rate.
Getting to Ignalina NPP
We start our drive from Latvia on a Sunday evening, when the fields of crops look to be ready for harvest any moment. While the temperature is only 22˚C, the enormous clouds in the sky signal, it is clearly summer time.
We reach the border with Lithuania and a surprise awaits us. Border control. Is this to do with the incident on the Belarus border? No, right, it is the NATO summit. For the second year in a row I manage to find myself accidentally right where it takes place. The border guards carefully check our documents, not just passports, but also driver’s license and inspect the car trunk. Soon, we are on the way again, observing green fields, storks and hawks. In three hours, we reach the city of Visaginas. It has just rained here, the steam is raising up from the road and the evening sun illuminates the buildings. It is eerie empty, reminds me of Detroit, with wide roads but no one around. Two lane roads each way, but we are the only ones driving, and pavements have no pedestrians. It is only 8pm, where is everybody?
We struggle with our GPS for a moment, as can’t seem to figure out where the hotel is. The name looks to be spelled correctly, and when we reach a multistory building, I feel like the pictures I saw online must have been wrong. I had found only two hotels where breakfast is included and now start doubting my choice. But no, this isn’t the right place. I try the full address and finally, the hotel is there. It is a bit strange looking two red brick story building. One part of it looks to be a church, another, aquarium service company and door seller company. Hotel is on the other corner, sandwiched between high apartment buildings and an overgrown field of a few years old birch trees. The hotel sign has the first letter of the name peeling off, and the tiles on the stairs are falling off. Not very inspiring. Luckily, after that the experience is flawless, the room is ready, we get the key, eat a quick dinner at the hotel restaurant and head to the room. While looking like millennium chic, the room is impeccably clean, and has everything that one needs, including AC and a hairdryer.
The reason why we are in Visaginas, right next to border with Belarus and largest lake in Lithuania, Drukšiai, is the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant (INPP). It used to be one of the most powerful plants with the most power reactors – the 1500 MW in the world (!). A few months ago I saw on Facebook that since the plant is in the process of being decommissioned, there are tours available. Latvian tourism agencies are selling places on tours saying it is the last chance. When I look up the information on the site of the INPP, I find that it is possible to visit also individually, making an advance booking. Reaching out by email I find out that next batch of available places, 2 months from now, will become available at the start of the new month. Not to miss my chance, I call right at 9:00 at the start of the month. Two places secured! There aren’t many dates available in English. Each group has 15 places, and due to lack of interest, Russian speaking groups are limited. Visaginas is the only Lithuanian city with a majority Russian speaking population, so Russian language actually is the best one to get the tour in. After a few more emails we get transferred to another date, as we have been granted permission to take pictures ourselves. Only using professional equipment, as smartphones aren’t allowed inside the INPP. We send in a detailed list of equipment, our passport data and soon our tour has been confirmed! There is a background check for anyone visiting, even those on a regular tour, as this is a limited access object.
Before going to bed on the evening before, I am reading up on how NPP works and how is this one, RBMK type (Реактор Большой Мощности Канальный — “high-power channel-type reactor”) different from the others. RBMK is a Soviet developed and build nuclear reactor type. RBMK is a heterogeneous channel type slow neutron uranium-graphite reactor (graphite as a slowdown mechanism, water as coolant). Chernobyl NPP was also RBMK type, and due to that the award-winning HBO miniseries Chernobyl was filmed at Ignalina NPP. Right now, there are working RMBK type reactors in Kursk, Smolensk and Leningrad. Decommissioning Ignalina NPP was a condition of Lithuania joining to the European Union. While reading all the available material, I am once more delighted that travel opens up possibilities for me to fill up my school time holes in physics and history.
Visiting Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant
On the next morning, after eating a hearty breakfast at the hotel which has a surprisingly large variety, I am ready to go. In the morning Visaginas is much busier. There are 18 thousand inhabitants in the city, when the NPP used to work full scale, there were 33 thousand people. The city was built specifically for the workers of the NPP and from an aerial view reminds of a butterfly. That explains the butterfly shaped flower bends I saw last night!
We leave Visaginas with plenty of time to spare. There are large pipes along the road, packed with insulation. The city used to be heated from the NPP. Then, I see plenty of electrical wiring. At the turn we see informative sign of entering the NPP territory and soon we see a characteristic three-legged chimney, then, the other one. Two reactors, two chimneys, both, sleeping.
We park our can in the parking lot and observe the surroundings. No pedestrians. The only noise comes from the lawn mowers, who notice us taking pictures and move out of the shot. At that point we don’t know it yet, but even for photography from the outside, a permission is needed. We have one, just haven’t received it in paper form yet.
We enter the main building, where security control needs to be passed. First, we approach the information desk, and the lady there is surprised why have we shown up 20 minutes early. “Your tour isn’t until half past, isn’t it?” she asks. It is, but we don’t want to miss anything and there are still formalities to clear!
We need to wait. The wall mounted TV is showing employee birthdays wishes and statistics about decommissioning. As I have left my phone in the car, I grab the only other thing I have except my passport, my notepad, and start making notes. Until 2038, 107 393 tons of equipment need to be decommissioned. In 2023, 4629 tons of equipment and 2156 tons of structures. From 2010 to 2022, 66437 tons of equipment and 13998 tons of structures have already been decommissioned. I remember reading the night before about selling of metal and other materials that are safe for use elsewhere to help gain additional funds. Decommission is primarily financed by the EU, but also Lithuania and other ally countries. Of course, this project also has been affected by the increasing expenses, as inflation applies.
The stationary phone on the guard’s desk rings and he picks it up. I realize he is talking about us to someone. While we are called a “TV station”, since we had inquired about filming, we will only take pictures, as it will be easier this way.
A little while after, Beata Voitechovskaja, the NPP Communication Specialist, comes to pick us up, she will be our guide in the NPP. Together with her colleague, she is the one leading tour groups and normally is the only one taking pictures and sending those to tour participants. This time around, we have been granted a permission to do that ourselves. Beata has the “red clearance”, so she is required to complete special training and instructions about nuclear physics. Employees also need to pass psychiatric certification and ethics of communication. Any visitor to the NPP is only allowed to be here with an accompanying person, and there is a maximum of one visit per day allowed. Since we are here today, it means no one else is visiting. Those who have worked here for even 30 years, but without the proper clearance, are also guests in this area and to see what we are about to see, need to join a tour. The area is well protected, there are guards, key codes and key cards.
We need to sign a logbook, receive our paper permit for taking pictures, which needs to be present the entire time we are inside and shown to anyone inquiring. The keycard needs to be fixed to chest. At the entrance, our documents are checked again, and our belongings scanned. While we are finishing the formalities, a couple employees pass through the other gate. They also observe the requirements strictly.
Soon we learn why the entrance time is this precise. There are very strict working hours, exactly 7 hours and 32 minutes shifts in the control area near the radioactive sources. One isn’t allowed to come early or late or leave early or late. There are still many employees here, about 1600, and the NPP is serviced 24/7, although both reactors are off. This explains the quite outside, we entered when the day shift (7:00) had started already, and there is movement only outside of the shift hours. The NPP is still hiring, and salaries are good, judging by the postings in the waiting room. As we learn later during the tour, even in the unstable 90-ties, the salaries here were always paid on time.
Beata tells me that unfortunately I am not allowed to bring by notepad with me. What to do? It is clear I can’t remember everything I will hear! We agree that we will stop by the dosimetrists office and ask them to give me a sheet of paper and a pen from the inside. But first, we must get there.
Entering the controlled area of the nuclear power plant – safety measures, change of clothes and the reactor
We are brought to a changing room and need to strip to underwear. We receive enormous size white socks, long white pants, and a white shirt. These are the undergarments. We move around the changing room in blue slippers. This is also the last place with a toilet. In the next room, we put on another layer, white pants, and a white jacket. We need to cover our hair completely with a white hat. We put on a white pair of shoes, need to bring a blue pair of single use shoe covers and a respirator. Finally, a red hard hat on top, and a pair of light-colored gloves. Everything is white because white is the color of life. White color clothing allows seeing dust on it. And dust can be radioactive.
We pass through a galley, from which we see a concrete building. There, in a 25 meters deep shaft, the reactor lives. This is where we are going to today. The galley can be seen on the miniseries a couple of times. Beata tells us that the filming crew stayed with them for a year, but the actual shooting time was very short. After the miniseries, there was a surge of tourists coming to see, including journalists from many countries, even from such publications as the “Time Magazine”. Beata asks how long we have been writing about radiation topic. “This will be the first time” I confess. Primarily, I am here as a tourist, but one, who wants to share the insights with others as well.
Ignalina NPP building process begun in 1975, and initially it was supposed to have four blocks. First reactor was turned on in December 1983, second, after a delay due to Chernobyl, in August of 1987. The third reactor build was begun, but due to the Chernobyl disaster, it was decided to dismantle what was built and the fourth wasn’t even started. After the accident also the maximum reactor power was decreased from 1500MW to 1360 MW. First reactor was switched off on December 31st 2004, second on December 31st of 2009. Beata says that at the time of closing this was the safest NPP in the world, as enormous resources, support, and surveillance was put in by other countries and the International Atomic Energy Agency.
First, we receive our dosimeters. It is estimated that in the next three hours we will receive about 8 microsieverts. In comparison, a two-hour flight in an airplane exposes one to 25 microsieverts. Interestingly, our total exposure isn’t taken from our two individual dosimeters average, but total for both!
We meet a man in the hallway from the dosimetrists department, he is heading out for lunch. The cafeteria only works from 11am to 13pm here. Eating or drinking inside, even water, isn’t allowed. He kindly agrees to share some of his office supplies with me.
We head on and our guide shows us numbers on the wall. Those aren’t floors as we know them in a multistory house, but markings, coordinates. The elevator also doesn’t have floors, but the same marks, so that an exact location can be found. We also notice the marks on the doors – three green triangles mean that the doors can be opened, there is no risk. We see a door that has one of the triangles yellow, so a source of the ionizing radiation is located there. The door is extremely thick metal. We are only allowed to touch the doors when entering, to hold it, and only wearing gloves. Nothing else can be touched.
We head inside to the reactor room. We won’t spend much time inside, as this is one of the most radioactive places, where visits are limited, as the dismantling work is in progress. First, shoe covers need to be put on. We enter, and this is the exact same place in the miniseries where the 100kg heavy lead blocks were jumping up before the explosion!
The feeling is surreal. To be in such a place and see it with your own eyes! There isn’t any decommission work done right at that time, but we see that the refueling machine is being dismantled, as there is little of it that remains. This piece of equipment was used to move the fuel rods, two to six times during 24 hours. Despite of what comes to mind when hearing “nuclear fuel”, it actually isn’t liquid.
In the reactor room there are several demonstration fuel rods, 7 m tall, made of zirconium. The actual fuel assemblies would have 226 small pellets of uranium 235 in the openings, and a special design for the water to flow around them freely. We learn that the half-life of uranium 235 is 700 million years. Now it becomes a bit clearer what is it exactly that we were reading about the NPP website, that is being put into special storage casks. One has to safely store not just the used rods, but also unused one. We learn that per the regulations, nuclear waste needs to remain in the country of origin. The only nuclear waste processing facilities available are in the United States, France and Russia. Right now, the containers have license to be stored for 50 years. The nuclear reaction doesn’t stop in those, and right now the temperature of each cask is around 30-40˚C, but after 50 years, it will be 70˚C.
Beata tells us that the decommission of the reactor Nr. 2 itself is likely to begin at the very start of the next year. So until December one can see it while there is something to see. When I ask Beata what those “colorful squares” are on the reactor plate, she tells me those are control rods. Blue and green are automatic; yellow, manual.
We move around the room, and she shows us a place covered with lead pillows. Such pillows and blankets are used in places that still have too high gamma radiation. Our dosimeters already have beeped a few times while we stood on the lead blocks on the reactor itself. The lead protection is everywhere, and radiation exposure in the room is minimal due to the natural background of the place. It will change in the process of dismantling and that is why workers and visitors can only stay a limited time only.
We discuss that this is a place one can have only obedient tourists in a group. It isn’t an easy job to be responsible for 15 people! Beata tells us that there have been some nasty attempts at taking pictures or doing other not allowed activities. Even employees for any illegal activity (and even eating is considered such here!) can have serious consequences. The visitors are not exempt. NPP is not the place to test leniency.
We learn that these tours aren’t’ advertised. If there is a free place, you have to sign up yourself. There aren’t any freed-up places ads or waitlists. This is just a co-activity of the NPP. Those interested, need to learn about tit themselves and sign up themselves. Only those of the age of 18 and above are allowed in, and pregnant people can’t visit. There are stairs to be climbed and the pace can be fast in some areas, so you have to be in a good health. Those who can’t join the tour, are welcome to visit the information center and learn about the work of the NPP from the exhibit there.
When the reactor itself will be moved from pre-dismantling stage to dismantling stage, the tours will be replanned to show other places in the NPP. However, several employees tell us that there isn’t much remaining already. For us, nevertheless, what we see, seems extraordinary. Especially, a chance to speak to people who have worked there all their lives!
Spent Fuel Storage Pool Facility
We next enter the spent fuel storage pool facility, where we meet Fanir Gilmanov, who has worked here since NPP was built. When we approach him, he is working on something that looks like robotic set of hands, actually, a purely mechanical tool.
Behind multiple layers of glass, where one used to be able to cut the fuel assemblies before the next move down the chain. Now this too needs to be dismantled. If something breaks down behind the glass, one can stay there for only very short periods of time. Beata says that it is just like in the miniseries, with the “biorobots” cleaning the Chernobyl roof. You managed to do something? Good! Not? Still need to get out! The risk of radiation isn’t something one can see, smell or touch. You don’t feel it like a shift in the temperature. The only thing we hear, is our dosimeters beeping occasionally. Beata tells us that the employees rotate in the different types of job, when a certain limit of exposure is reached. Instructions are very clear and observed. The employees working inside the control area have a larger maximum allowed level of exposure, 200 microsievert, us, visitors, have 40 in 24 hour period.
I ask Fanir what he remembers about Chernobyl. He tells me that at the start, no one would say anything. Only, that there was a fire on the roof. Some of their colleagues also were involved in clean up work. Since the accident, many improvements have been made in this NPP, for example, the speed of emergency shutdown. We spend a bit of time just chatting with Fanir about his experience and work here. He tells us that after the gain of Lithuania’s independence, the NPP accounted for about 50 % of GDP of Lithuania and provided about 80% of electrical power. If the third and fourth reactors had been built, the electricity could have been sold to Poland. For a while there was talk of building a new plant here, since all the personnel is already here, but now it isn’t being discussed anymore.
Nuclear Power Plant Control Room
Next we head to the “brain” of the NPP. Place, that used to lead all the reactor work. We enter a room and there is one employee there. We are only allowed to take pictures of what isn’t turned on. Some systems is still being watched 24/7.
The fact that it isn’t producing electricity, doesn’t mean there are no risks. We see a red line on the floor. Until 2009, if you didn’t have clearance to bee in this room, but needed to enter for some reason, getting a special permission was necessary. Then, you’d stand behind the line and wait for the operators to address you.
Next to the head operators desk we see a closet, full of instruction manuals. Beata tells us that another aspect changed since Chernobyl, the hierarchy was dismantled. Anyone was allowed to challenge the head operator, if the instructions were on their side. Full equality. If you have the truth per the instruction, you are right. We also see a large blueprint of the plant, with the same markings we just learned about to establish precise location. There is also a plan of the surface of the reactor.
And on the operators console, the famous “АЗ-1K” button, which was used here to switch the reactor off. Chernobyl had an “АЗ-5”. It is immediately visible on the otherwise busy console, as had a special cover to avoid accidental pressing. We snap a few pictures in the allowed places and it is time to leave. We notice some exercise equipment in the corner. For those free moments?
Finally we enter a room where turbines and concrete layers are being dismantled, to be put in various containers. Every chunk has a sticker with what it is and waste class. I have never seen such a clean place of dismantling anything! But we still have to wear a respirator to be safe and not accidentally breath something in.
We see enormous gray container with class A markings and radioactive symbol. B and C classes need to be stored in a different type of storage facility, yet to be built on the INPP site. There is still work to be done til 2038. Some of the project plans are way ahead of estimates, others are lagging behind. It isn’t a daily occurrence, to dismantle a RBMK reactor, and there is no experience with it. When this will be done, many can learn from it, and even use the knowledge for other types of reactors decommission.
Several men are working in this room, wearing other colored clothing on top. They aren’t physicists but are doing physical work.
When we leave the room, Beata shows us equipment to check if we haven’t been exposed to any dust. Wherever we check, it is all clean. She also shows us how it looks like if uncovered shoe soles are checked. Still within limits, but more to see. The final demonstration is of the fluorescent arrows on the floor, to be able to find exit in the dark. There are no windows here.
Leaving the Controlled Area
It is time to leave. We give back the dosimeters. Our total exposure is 8 microsieverts. We have spent a lot of time at the reactor, but all within permissible range. We are told in which order we have to take off which clothing. When we get to the white undergarment layer, we are brought to another piece of equipment that tells us which way to turn, where to press our hands, to be checked for radiation. All clean.
When we have changed to our civilian clothing, Beata checks our photo camera. We have behaved well, all pictures are allowed. She walks us to the exit, where our documents and paperwork is checked again, and our physical photography permit is taken away.
Three and a half hours have elapsed, her shift is finishing soon, so she needs to get back to the information center to finish some work but encourages us to take a look around from the main entrance side. She adds “In the miniseries, there was a Lenin statue here”. We are allowed to take pictures outside, and she tells us her phone number, in case anyone isn’t letting us take pictures. The sky is covered with clouds, and we are glad about the few shots we snapped in the morning, when the chimneys were illuminated by the sun.
Slowly we head to the information center. There is a large model of the station, looks to be the same one in the miniseries in the court episode. I watch the virtual reality experience video about the dismantling work. One of the final sentences at the end talks about how fuel assemblies will be stored for 50 years, but then it is something our children will need to deal with. That stays with me.
I purchase a few souvenirs at the information center, as I suddenly feel the urge to do so, normally I don’t buy anything. After the tour I really understand my friends, who had told me about their experience at the NPP – one of the most interesting excursions in their lives! And I have to agree.
We head to our car and suddenly, people are everywhere. The first shift of the day has finished! Someone is picking up their relatives, someone else is driving themselves. A little bit further down the road we see people taking pictures of the plant from the distance. Did they already get told off or simply afraid?
Visaginas at 3 in the afternoon is a bustling city. The parking lots of shops and the shops themselves are full. It is the rush hour. Clearly, due to the shifts, the hours of bustle are a bit different here. Finally, we see the city vibrant!
When I get home, this topic doesn’t let me go. First, I watch the Chernobyl miniseries, yelling out every time I recognize a place from the tour. From the moment at the hotel, reading Wikipedia articles about the NPP operations and the dismantling, now I already understand much better what is being shown. I recognize details. In a week, I watch the movie of the year, “Oppenheimer”, about the father of the atomic bomb, and again, I see it in quite a different light that I would have otherwise. The topic of nuclear physics is following me. Turns out, in the United States, atomic or nuclear tourism is quite popular, and is considered to be a relatively new type of tourism. People are going to see the Oppenheimer’s “Trinity” atomic bomb testing site. Just nearby, in Ukraine, before war one could see the city of Pripyat. Now, around here, the leader board in atomic tourist destinations definitely is taken up by Ignalina NPP, where one can still see the reactor with their own eyes, before it gets dismantled.
This article was originally published in the magazine “SestDiena” on 4th of August, 2023.
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