Ukraine has opened the control room of Chernobyl reactor four, the epicentre of the worst nuclear disaster in history, to the public as part of a tourist boom.
It was in this room in April 1986 that Soviet engineers shut down cooling pumps as part of a test, causing an out-of-control reaction, explosion and fire that killed at least 54 people and exposed hundreds of thousands to harmful radiation.
Now those brave or foolhardy enough to venture inside can catch a very brief glimpse of the place where this tragic history was made.
An estimated 200 tonnes of radioactive fuel still remain in the increasingly unstable steel-and-concrete sarcophagus erected over reactor four by the accident “liquidators”.
Such is the fear of radiation leaks that a 355-foot, 36,000-tonne steel arch, the world’s largest movable metal structure, was built and rolled over it in 2016 at a cost of £1.3 billion.
What Chernobyl left behind: inside an abandoned city
Human habitation is sharply curtailed within the 1,000-square-mile exclusion zone around the accident site. But thanks to a “green corridor” to streamline tourism announced by president Volodymyr Zelenskiy in July, fans of the Chernobyl HBO series can find a wide variety of tours.
Previously, most visitors were only able to see the plant from the outside. For many the highlight was the crumbling flat blocks and ferris wheel of the nearby ghost town of Pripyat, whose 50,000 residents were abruptly evacuated.
Last week, however, officials took journalists through the plant’s kilometre-long corridor of gold-coloured aluminium and into the reactor four control room, which is located under the new containment arch but outside the old sarcophagus, to announce its opening as part of 21 new tourist routes.
While much of the equipment was removed from the control room during an investigation after the accident, rusting panels with banks of buttons and displays can still be seen.
The visit lasted only a few minutes to keep radiation exposure from reaching dangerous levels. Guests spent far more time donning respirators, helmets and protective clothing and going through scanners on the entrance and exit.
Radiation levels vary widely but tend to concentrate in plants and soil. Inside the reactor four building, the biggest threat is radioactive dust. A visitor who accidentally wipes against something can get a large dose, according to maintenance workers, who spray chemicals to keep the dust down.
While numbers had been increasing before the HBO programme, more than 87,000 people have already visited Chernobyl this year, compared to 72,000 last year.
The government has been improving walking trails, checkpoints and mobile reception and recently approved river boat tours.
Not everyone has welcomed the tourists, however. A rash of scantily clad selfies led to the producer of the HBO series to call on people to “comport yourselves with respect”.
Yaroslav Yemelianenko, director of the largest excursion company Chernobyl Tour, said if visitors stay on the guided route for the day, they are exposed to no more than 4 micro-sieverts, less radiation than in an hour on a transatlantic plane flight.
But doctor Yury Bandazhevsky, who has studied Chernobyl for decades, has opposed tourism to the exclusion zone as a needless risk of radiation exposure. Campfires in particular can release large amounts of dangerous particles, he warned.
“Tourists can be both a victim and source of this danger,” he said.
On Monday, Kiev region police said they had arrested 323 “stalkers,” as explorers of abandoned places are called after a popular video game, who bypassed exclusion zone checkpoints this year.