After disaster: the people who call Chernobyl home

The power plant that triggered the worst-ever nuclear accident shuts down today.

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For the contaminated area closest to Chernobyl - site of the world's worst-ever nuclear accident -time appears to have stopped on April 26, 1986.

Silence took over as more than 100,000 evacuees fled fallout 100 times more radioactive than the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II.

Across a vast restricted area, towns and villages remain eerily empty, an amusement park lies in ruins, weeds have grown into trees. The moss near an empty bumper car makes a Geiger counter crackle and sing at three times the normal rate. Nearby, pine trees show multiple signs of mutation.

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Today, after years of Western pressure on Ukraine, Chernobyl is to be officially shut down. It's something of a formality -Reactor No. 3 has been on-again, off-again during three weeks of technical glitches. Engineers will press the button that stops the nuclear chain reaction for the final time, in a move critics say is long overdue.

Fallout persists

Chernobyl's legacy of contamination across Eastern Europe is expected to last for decades. Among victims are the 30 or so firemen who died in the initial explosion of Reactor No. 4, and the thousands of subsequent deaths widely attributed to the fallout in Ukraine, Belarus, and western Russia - although the figure is disputed by some.

"The danger is tremendous, and we don't know the impact on future generations because we don't know about lower doses," says Andrei Zabov, with the nuclear nonproliferation project of the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow. Ukraine took over the reactor after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.

"Living there is a risk, and the risk is higher than in other areas," he adds. "People take risks every day, just crossing the road. But I would be afraid to go there."

Contamination is still spreading: One town 30 miles west of Chernobyl was evacuated just last year. But as scientists debate the long-term effects of low-level radiation exposure, amid the radioactive detritus there is a human face. The risks are in the eye of the beholder, and there may be no more cavalier attitude than among the few who live closest to the reactor itself, in the barbed-wire fenced "exclusion zone" that marks an 18-mile radius from the epicenter of the blast.

"We've already consumed all that radiation," says Nina Franko, a large-handed collective farm veteran in the near-empty village of Obachichi. She is one of 3,000 people who returned to homes in the zone a year after the blast, despite warnings. Today, only 300 remain, all of them elderly.

"We've stayed here all these years. It means we got used to the radiation, and the radiation got used to us," says Mrs. Franko, who worked briefly as a cleaner at the reactor. Virtually all other plant workers commute to work by shuttle from a purpose-built city outside the zone perimeter.

The radioactive cloud was large: Belarus received 70 percent of the fallout, and research in 1989 indicated that one-fifth of that former-Soviet state is "significantly contaminated." In Ukraine, officials say 3.5 million people live on "hot" soil. Cases of thyroid cancer have surged 100-fold in some areas, and by one count, 15,000 have died.

As many as 800,000 soldiers and volunteers, called "liquidators," were heavily exposed to radiation while helping to clean up the Chernobyl site. There is no record of who they were, or their current state of health.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan noted earlier this year: "The catastrophe is far from over. It continues to have a devastating effect not only on the health of the people, but on every aspect of society."

Still, those living nearby get by. More than 40 percent of the exclusion zone is covered with pine trees, and many of the so-called "self-settlers" left after a 1991 forest fire spread radioactive particles farther and turned some villages to ash.

"We thought we would die when we returned, but we are still here," laughs Nastasia Chikalovets, the silver-capped arc of her teeth flashing with a broad smile. She runs a modest farm, though nobody beyond the exclusion zone will touch the local produce.

Locals shrug off the fears of outsiders, point to their own robust health, and cite tests -selective though they may be -that show no danger as long as 22 pounds of local mushrooms are not consumed at a single sitting. Radiation levels, they contend, are higher elsewhere in Ukraine.

"What is radiation?" asks Mrs. Chikalovets. "We didn't feel it then, we don't feel it now. Let it be radiation. It's on our land."

"They explained it all to us," adds Valentina Kortunenko, as Fluffy, her long-haired cat, slinks through the living room graced with six perfect red roses from the garden. "They said don't go, its dangerous. Don't eat anything," Mrs. Kortunenko says. Since then, "all the world" has visited, measuring radiation levels and writing reports.

So these three friends, who might be simple babushka anywhere else in the former Soviet Union, know some things about radiation. They can tick off differences in the half-life and ionizing characteristics of radioactive elements that they live with: plutonium, cesium-137, strontium, and radioactive iodine. That is also the language of nuclear scientists and officials at the Chernobyl plant, who argue that Ukraine desperately needs the 5 percent of the nation's electricity it produces.

The destroyed core of the reactor has been encased in a "sarcophagus," a concrete and steel shell that requires constant care and remains extremely radioactive. Inside, the control room for unit No. 4 is covered with a veneer of purple goo designed to keep down radioactive dust.

In front of the console, a technician points to the trigger for the accident: the last button pushed at 1:26 am on April 26, as part of an experiment to test the reactor's capacity, while most safety mechanisms were off.

"Half of Ukraine's regions have 'hot' spots," says Nikolai Dmytruk, of the official InterInform agency in Chernobyl, who estimates that some 3.5 million Ukrainians "live in contaminated areas. Even now, the zone grows to the west." Other towns in that direction are likely to be evacuated in coming years.

Part of the cesium cloud that soared into the atmosphere during the explosion was detected across Europe, as well as in northern Iraq.

Lingering concerns

Officials here worry that the international community may forget about Chernobyl - and its continuing need for cash to be safe - once it shuts down for good.

A particular concern is the river that flows past the reactor and feeds into the Dnieper River, past the capital, Kiev, and finally into the Black Sea - the watershed that provides 9 million Ukrainians with drinking water.

In the "exclusion zone," where settlers this year fought off growing packs of wolves, the government provides an allowance for buying "safe" food from outside. A vehicle brings food for purchase every week.

Still, residents say they find a certain pleasure in being pioneers, though it is often a lonely business. No one, for example, lives in Pripyat, a city once home to 50,000 people, where lamp posts are still hung with festive Soviet hammer-and-sickle signs, in preparation for 1986 May Day celebrations that never took place.

The amusement park was supposed to open that day, too.

Back in Obachichi village, the three lady friends laugh about a neighbor who once dug up her entire garden. "I never found radiation!" the woman exclaimed. "Where is it?"

"We are sorry the villages are empty and trees grow in the gardens. It's very sad," says Kortunenko. "It is awkward to live here. But they won't take us forcefully."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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