The modest railway station of Visaginas greets travelers in the middle of a forest and, once you get off the train, it takes some time to find out which way the town is.
Located amid pine woods and lakes in the eastern part of Lithuania, the Soviet-era nuclear town is surrounded by nature of exceptional beauty. Locals sometimes joke that everyone has a lake there.
The town was built 44 years ago for workers of the now defunct Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant. Most of its 20,000 residents are Russian-speakers. If it weren't for street signs or shop names, you wouldn't think you are in Lithuania.
Few locals even speak Lithuanian. The massive Soviet-era building housing the town's administration is the only place where the Lithuanian language prevails.
A tourist who doesn't speak Russian may have difficulty calling a taxi, asking for directions or getting other information.
'Chernobyl' sparks nuclear tourism
Before 2010, the Ignalina NPP generated the bulk of Lithuania's electricity. The plant's closure deprived the town of what was written in its DNA.
In recent months, however, Visaginas has been experiencing a kind of renaissance, boosted mostly by HBO's ‘Chernobyl’ miniseries.
Shot in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, and at the Ignalina plant, the popular miniseries has fueled interest in nuclear tourism. The facility's overseers now struggle to cope with the influx of visitors who want to see Ignalina's RBMK nuclear reactor, the same type as the one that exploded in Chernobyl in 1986.
Visaginas Mayor Erlandas Galaguzas says tourist numbers have soared since the miniseries was aired, which has proved a big challenge for the town.
“I can't say we are ready for that amount of tourists. We have to think about how to attract tourists not only to the nuclear power plant itself, but also to make them stay in our town,” he says.
Although a tour of the plant costs nearly 60 euros, the facility is fully booked up to the end of the year.
Ana Aliončik, senior engineer at the plant's Radioactive Waste Management Service, thinks the fate of the Ignalina nuclear facility was inseparably linked to that of the Chernobyl plant. The situation changed radically in the wake of the nuclear disaster, and Lithuania committed itself to shutting down its Soviet-built plant as a condition of its EU membership.
Galaguzas agrees that the shutdown of the plant in 2010 delivered a huge blow to the town of Visaginas.
“The future seemed dim and uncertain,” the mayor says, adding that the nuclear town is now coming to terms with a new reality.
“Things have settled down somewhat. We're all used to the nuclear plant generating no electricity and no money,” he said.
Galaguzas notes, however, that Visaginas will stick to its nuclear identity for many years to come. Although decommissioned, the plant will continue to exist as a nuclear location for hundreds of years. The complex is to be razed to the ground in 2038, but there will still be companies that will manage the buried nuclear waste.
Visaginas eyes nuclear tourism and investment
The success of the HBO miniseries and growing tourist flows have offered Visaginas a glimpse of a profitable vein to exploit.
Galaguzas, who had himself worked at the Ignalina plant for years, says the town is determined to tap into that vein and further develop nuclear tourism.
“We're quite realistic about tourism. We'd really like to work in that direction. We are a unique town in terms of nuclear tourism, so we'll probably stay in this area and try to develop it,” he said.
“We're planning to set up an innovative information centre that would give information on how things were during the operation and dismantling of the plant.”
New investments, such as a new factory that is being built by the international medical device producer Intersurgical in Visaginas, is expected to give an economic boost to the town, too.
The new facility is to be launched next year, with plans to employ about 200 people initially and increase the workforce to 1,500 in the future.
Galuguzas says Visaginas is already in talks with other potential investors, too.