A Tour Of Chernobyl Is Troubling Visit

CHERNOBYL NUCLEAR POWER STATION, Ukraine -- The visit to the Chernobyl power plant begins as a bit of a letdown. I had expected the 30-mile-radius contaminated zone around the plant to be strewn with shriveled tree trunks and rotting cottages and empty of life.

View of the gray cracked and crumbling sarcophagus covering the Chernobyl nuclear power plant's damaged Reactor No. 4. The reactor exploded on April 26, 1986, spewing radioactive clouds across much of Europe. Ukraine is preparing to mark the 20th anniversary later this month.

But after camouflaged guards check our passports and motion our van through the barrier at the edge of the zone, there is oncoming traffic. In the town of Chernobyl, 11 miles from the plant, laundry hangs on balconies, people chat with each other on the street and a small store has well-stocked shelves: bananas, vodka, pasta sauce.

About 4,000 people live in Chernobyl _ but only for two weeks at a time. They are workers brought in for short rotations to keep watch on the contaminated zone around the reactor and carry out decontamination work.

Others live in the zone permanently, despite official warnings.

One of them is 71-year-old Mariya Urupa, who lives outside town in a cozy brick house.

"Radiation does not exist because you can't see it," she tells us.

You almost start to believe her, and then the tour changes drastically.

The plant, which had been just a hazy mass on the horizon, comes starkly into view as our van bumps down a potholed road. First, we pass the abandoned hulks of what would have been Chernobyl's new fifth and sixth reactors, surrounded by giant cranes frozen in place since the April 26, 1986, explosion.

The station's core complex is laid out flat and long like a sleeping giant. As we circle it, we count up: Reactor No. 1, No. 2. Mathematically, we know we are headed toward No. 4. But we seem impossibly close. The van turns a corner and stops. Dead in front of us are the adjoined hulks of the structures housing Reactors No. 3 and 4.

We are no more than 650 feet away from the reactor that blew up and spewed radiation across Europe.

Radio music wafts over the low concrete wall that surrounds the complex. A women's voice relays something indistinguishable over loudspeakers.

But there is nothing ordinary about this. The beeps of our dosimeter, which until now has done little to alarm us, turn frenetic, bumping together: 490 microroentgens an hour, then 520, then around 700.

"Normal background levels are around 12 microroentgens," our guide, Yuriy Tatarchuk, tells us cheerfully.

Standing there, peering up at the reactor, my first instinct is not to breathe. My second is: Wow! And we all temporarily abandon the journalistic aim of our trip, and turn into tourists, snapping photographs of each other with Reactor No. 4 towering behind us.

Tatarchuk watches patiently. He's used to this, having brought many journalists into the zone on behalf of the Emergency Situations Ministry.

When we are done posing, Tatarchuk beckons us inside a separate building where a model of the ruined reactor and the sarcophagus surrounding it are on display.

The concrete sarcophagus is in trouble. Soviet authorities ordered it built over the reactor's spewing insides in a hurry; today it is crumbling and covered in cracks. Inside, we're told, the reactor's original columns are leaning Tower of Pisa-like. The roof in places doesn't fully close. Birds have gotten inside. It leaks radiation.

When it's time to move on, no one argues. Next stop: Pripyat, a Soviet-town constructed in the 1970s to house the plant's workers. At the gated entrance, a lone mutt comes up to our van's open door while the guards again check off our names.

"He's the last one left," Tatarchuk says.

Pripyat's streets are empty and thick with snow. We are struck by the silence. This is the lifelessness I expected. An amusement park that was expected to open May 1, 1986 _ five days after the explosion _ sits desolate: bumper cars on their sides, the Ferris wheel frozen in place.

Pripyat's 47,000 people were evacuated in convoys of buses and boats down the Pripyat River in four hours the day after the explosion. They were told that they would be leaving for three days; they had to leave their pets behind.

Their apartments, once meant as a reward to the Soviet Union's proud nuclear workers, are now crumbling and vandalized. We climb the iced-over steps into the city's tallest structure, a 16-story apartment building. Dust, debris and broken glass litter the floor. The wallpaper is peeling off in big, curlycue strips.

"Not only adults but children too are responsible for cleanliness," a Soviet-era sign exhorts.

We have no face masks, so cover our mouths with scarves as we trudge into apartments, most emptied of everything, even toilet seats and electrical fixtures.

On the roof, the entire city stretches out below us _ noticeable for its Soviet-era absence of church domes.

When will people return here, we ask.

"Return to what?" Tatarchuk answers.

Source: AP