The huge devastated area around the remains of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor will never again be fit for human habitation, yet thousands of people are still working there. Kathy Sheridan enters the 'zone of alienation'.
In Chernobyl, nature has re-asserted her dominion. Free of man's interference for 20 years, wolves, bison, lynx and moose roam the fields and forests around the decommissioned reactors. Massive wild boar lumber along the roadside and sometimes on to the streets of Chernobyl town, excavating the orchards of empty homes. Families of elk wander the empty, rutted roads.
Sergei, our guide, remarks that spring here is very beautiful.
"Nature thrives," he says. "There is so much greenery . . . so many berries and mushrooms and wild flowers."
He talks about the fabulous size of the fish in the river and how the eagles have returned, "huge eagles, with wings spanning a metre to a metre and a half in the air". Later we hear that birds even nest inside the sarcophagus of the wrecked reactor.
But like a dark fairy tale, nothing here is as it seems. The bountiful berries and mushrooms are poisoned, soaked in radiation. Only a fool would eat the fat fish shimmering in the Pripyat River. The wild boar use their snouts as a hoe in the contaminated soil, making them the most radioactive of animals, shot and eaten at the poachers' peril. The wolves prey on the sickest animals, feeding on radiation.
Viktor, a former militia man once responsible for controlling entry into the so-called Exclusion Zone, tells us that when he and his mates found animal corpses in the forests, they used to perform "little experiments".
"When we cut them open, you'd find the liver was almost gone," he says.
The name of the zone, literally translated from Ukrainian, is "zone of alienation". About the size of Greater London, it is unfit for human habitation and will remain so forever.
Given a choice, Sergei himself would not be here. Like many of the 3,800 workers who earn a living in and around the reactor, he was forced here by high unemployment. Here, there is not only a job but a 20 per cent wage premium, commonly referred to as "coffin money".
For others, such as Julia Marusych, head of information in the visitors' centre, the attraction was the ready availability of an apartment in Slavutych, the company town built 50km away from Chernobyl after the catastrophe. A special train brings workers three times a day from Slavutych, crossing into Belarus and back into Ukraine. This train has no stops, no customs, no radiation checks, in sharp contrast to the interminable searches and questioning endured by ordinary visitors at Belarussian border crossings.
Marusych probably has one of the most unattractive roles in PR history. A former teacher, her job is to interpret the Chernobyl disaster for punch-drunk visitors fresh from stumbling through the eerily empty boulevards of Pripyat, Slavutych's predecessor, less than a kilometre away, the town abruptly abandoned by nearly 50,000 souls 20 years before; or from seeing how Chernobyl town, an ancient, once-lovely settlement, has been reduced to a radioactive research laboratory closed to all but a few scientists, shift-workers and wildlife.
But she pulls no punches. In a small viewing room overlooking the destroyed reactor, the only exhibit is a large model of No 4, which opens up like a sinister doll's house to reveal what lies inside the gunmetal grey monolith next door. The detail is precise, down to the tiny figurines of workers and piles of debris. The central, and largest, component, resembling a circular hairbrush with a deep handle, is the upper reactor plate, what Marusych calls "the technological channels".
"It weighed 2,000 tons, now it stands almost vertically," she says, demonstrating how it was lifted and turned on its side by the explosion. "Its position is not stable."
In fact, there is little that is stable in No 4. Where the model's floor-to-ceiling columns seem to be buckling, this is an alarmingly precise representation of what is happening inside the reactor. Shifts in metal plates mean that even the undamaged western wall is no longer stable.
"There is a threat of local collapse," Marusych says. Meanwhile, the immense "elephant's foot" of melted radioactive fuel below is cracking, emitting tonnes of radioactive dust.
"The chance of a spontaneous chain reaction inside is very low," Marusych adds, "but it is not zero."
For many of the workers in Chernobyl, the task is to maintain the other three decommissioned Chernobyl reactors, still with their nuclear fuel in place, still with their safety and cooling systems in operation, despite the closure of the last one in 2000. This process could take anything up to 150 years. The question of where to store the spent fuel will remain long beyond that.
But even more challenging is the task of stabilising reactor No 4. The desperate and heroic mission of the "stabilisation teams" is to prevent an even greater disaster than 1986. Ninety-seven per cent of the reactor's radioactive material remains inside the wreckage. To put that in context, the 3 per cent that escaped 20 years ago was enough to make a wasteland of parts of northern Ukraine and to contaminate 70 per cent of Belarus, a country with no nuclear plant of its own. Even now, 20 years on, no one knows for sure what secrets lie within the reactor. According to Marusych, only 25 per cent of the "inner rooms" are accessible; in the other 75 per cent, there is either restricted access or none.
The southern spent-fuel pool emits about 3,400 roentgens (units of ionizing radiation) per hour.
"It has no water inside . . . It is one of the most hazardous and least investigated rooms," says Marusych. Some 200 tonnes of fuel lie under the reactor rooms, "and they are the most hazardous and most inaccessible".
At the core, radiation levels are 300 million times greater than normal safety margins.
For workers in No 4, the daily "permitted" radiation dose is around 10 times the norm. Ordinary Ukrainian tradesmen such as welders and builders, contracted to work inside the reactor, sign agreements to work in "intense radiation". They wear special overalls, carry respirators and dosimeters and undergo medical tests before and after every 15-day spell of work. As well as radiation training, they undergo "psychological training".
"Not everyone is prepared for this kind of work," says a clearly sympathetic Marusych. "Conditions inside are very risky. People work in very small areas. The worker is given only 10 minutes to do his welding activity and is then replaced by another who has to be ready and psychologically prepared to carry out his activity in just 10 minutes."
Given the levels of radiation, a man might complete only one or two such sessions before reaching his maximum permitted daily radiation dose.
For workers on the roof of the so-called "sarcophagus", the allotted time is a minute. They must run. When the sarcophagus was built in 1986 to bury No 4 and contain its radiation, experts said it would have to outlast the Pyramids of Egypt, such was No 4's monstrous potency. Instead, massive openings have appeared in the roof, gaps that extend to about 100sq m, according to Marusych.
Rain floods in, damaging and corroding the concrete and metal inside, dropping on to irradiated fuel, before evaporating and rising again in the form of radioactive dust, coughing its lethal cloud on to prevailing winds. No one can say that Chernobyl is "over".
The story of what happened here 20 years ago is told on the centre's video. It ends with the message: "The Chernobyl problem is still unresolved."
A new shelter is finally on the drawing board, after years of argument about design and money.
"It's only a concept design," says Marusych.
It cannot even begin until the stabilisation phase is complete. Whenever it materialises - which could be 15 years - it will be the largest movable structure in the world at 100m high by 250m wide, assembled 200m from No 4 and slid into place. It should last for 100 years, they say.
What then? The message is clear. Man currently does not know enough to make this nuclear plant safe. The cream of international expertise can only try to make it sufficiently safe until our children or grandchildren find a solution. Maybe there is no solution. Maybe by then they will have learned to equal the vision of the pharaohs.
In the viewing room, it is difficult to tear one's eyes from the forbidding grey building next door. The flickering red numbers on the digital panel outside the viewing room window record the radiation levels around us. At between 1.1 and 1.2 milli-roentgens, we should hardly be worried, should we, someone asks tentatively. There are no false assurances. It's still about 100 times more than the average natural level of background radiation, says Marusych, who has been working in the plant since 1997.
Does she worry about her own health? She lowers her head for a long moment before answering slowly and carefully: "What I believe is that everybody should know exactly what the situation is where he works . . . especially those inside the sarcophagus."
At 4.30pm, workers stream out of the building and board the waiting buses for the station and the train home to Slavutych. Nearby stands an incongruous monumental sculpture of a beautiful youth, holding what we are told is a symbol of flame and energy. It was transplanted here from the town of Pripyat.
Ours is the only car on the road as we drive towards Pripyat, a kilometre away.
"Like Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Pripyat was conquered by the atom," said the narrator in the video.
Some compare it to an atomic-era Pompeii. But Pripyat was only 16 years standing when nuclear fallout forced its sudden abandonment - and not before nearly 50,000 men, women and children had been criminally exposed by Soviet authorities more intent on saving face than saving lives. In Kiev's Chernobyl Museum, a video shows one of the six weddings that took place in Pripyat on Saturday, April 26th, hours after the explosion.
The rusting hulk of a huge, yellow Ferris wheel still dominates the great square. It was due its inaugural spin a few days later on May Day 1986. The nursery school still has its little bed-frames lining the walls, small shoes, dolls, a class photograph album. Books are scattered on the library floor, some stamped April 26th, 1986. Rain now streams through the roof of the vast, marbled Palace of Culture while, backstage, enormous paintings of mighty political leaders and military men still wait to be raised in triumph in the great May Day parade.
We climb to the top of a 16-storey apartment block, where evidence of ordinary lives remains: piles of shoes, an old sofa, peeling murals. On the roof, a large wall-painting of a menacing male figure is as vibrant and disturbing as the day it was executed: cruel features, sinister eyes, mouth cast in shadow, dark jacket, red shirt and tie.
Above each block, crowning the buildings around the square, stand immense, electrified hammer-and-sickle signs, bringing to mind Shelley's lines : "My name is Ozymandias, king of kings/ Look on my works, ye Mighty, and tremble . . ." Now the only ones who tremble are the television crews. Some arrive dressed, head to toe, in full anti-nuclear/biological/chemical regalia, all the better to impress the folks back home.
Fifteen kilometres away, through silver birch and pine forests, past large snow- covered mounds signifying hurriedly buried homes, farm buildings and villages and a series of signs warning of radiation hot-spots, we reach the ancient town of Chernobyl.
Its lovely old painted wooden houses are derelict or, in a few cases, used for radiation experiments. Local administration buildings have been put to use as hostels for shift workers, mostly male, who pass the evenings in the gym or playing table tennis, missing girls and normality.
Alex Pyzhovsky, a 21-year-old physics student from Kiev is here to work on research involving mice and low-dose radiation. On his videophone, he grins boyishly at pictures of grossly deformed animals and foetuses.
"I never want to see a mouse again when I finish here," he says firmly.
He wants to open a shop.
Chernobyl's beautiful old synagogue, acquired long before 1986 by the Soviet police, still stands, a poignant place of pilgrimage for visiting Jews from Canada and the US. It is said that Jews were massacred here in Chernobyl, many of them buried alive.
Further along, the 500-year-old Orthodox Church of St Ilya has been gloriously restored, in an astonishing burst of hope, turquoise and gold. A locally born priest makes the 160km trip from Kiev every Saturday to conduct services.
At the edge of the virtually deserted town, near the war memorial to those who fell recapturing the town from the Germans in 1944, stands another more recent concrete monolith, dedicated "To Those Who Saved the World".
It is a monument to the heroic "liquidators", the firefighters, miners and ordinary working men who died or risked their lives in the battle to tame the raging reactor. By the end, they numbered around 600,000. In a design unloved by some, it nonetheless tries to convey the fragility of the earth and the awesome destructiveness of nuclear power, and carries the names of fallen liquidators, including those who had died by 1996, followed by another 200 in 2001. A large, empty space has been left for the many more to come.
A few kilometres away in Rozsokha village, a "nuclear graveyard" stands as another kind of memorial to the liquidators. This is where some 10,000 fiercely radioactive vehicles, including helicopters, fire engines, armoured personnel carriers, oil tankers and buses, were neatly parked and abandoned after the battle. Now parts are being removed for "recycling", according to our guide.
Meanwhile, poisoned cargo ships and boats, used to carry sand and cement from Belarus during the battle, lie rotting at Chernobyl port, several miles from town on the Pripyat River. Their radiation levels remain too high to be considered for recycling.
They should be buried, but the challenge for Ukraine is finding new burial sites where groundwater will not be contaminated. Anyway, there are other priorities. Twenty years on, more than 500 (more than half) of the burial sites used hurriedly for radioactive waste have still to be found, still less analysed. God alone knows what is entering the groundwater already.
That night, we stay at the state-run Chernobyl Hotel in the town, a cream-coloured pre-fab imported from Finland 20 years ago. A radiation dosimeter inside the door checks us out and declares us clean. The hotel is basic but clean and warm, and the welcome hot food is said to be "safe" (ie, brought in from Kiev). The bread rolls are even wittily disguised as porcupines, complete with peppercorns for eyes. There is no alcohol on offer despite the widespread belief that vodka is good for combatting radiation.
Upstairs, we pass a black-banded picture of Rima Kiselitsa, a 49-year-old mother and a popular, well-respected Chernobyl guide. Underneath is a spray of flowers and the message "we will never forget you". Rima died suddenly two weeks ago from a brain haemorrhage.
Like so much else, her untimely death may have nothing or everything to do with Chernobyl. Her daughter and colleagues doubtless find little reassurance or consolation there.
At 1.23am on April 26th, 1986, in nuclear reactor No 4 in the Chernobyl complex, 80 miles north of Kiev, a series of control-room errors and safety violations, allied to fundamental design flaws, triggered several catastrophic hydrogen explosions, which exposed the core, blew the 1,000-tonne cover off the top of the reactor and killed 31 people instantly. The 800 tonnes of graphite in the core burned for 10 days in a radiological inferno.
Some 70 per cent of the radiation fell on neighbouring Belarus, a country with no nuclear power plants. Contaminants, including plutonium isotopes with a half-life of 24,360 years, were blown across the globe, depositing cloud-borne radioactive material in the lakes of Japan and the hill farms of Wales and Ireland. It was the greatest man-made disaster - the equivalent of 500 Hiroshima bombs.
Twenty years on, the level of fallout in human suffering is still debated. The UN's International Atomic Energy Agency and World Health Organisation say that only 50 deaths can be attributed to the disaster, that 4,000 people at most may eventually die from it, and that most of the illnesses among the five million people contaminated are down to poverty and lifestyle.
However, new research commissioned by European parliamentary groups, Greenpeace International and medical foundations suggest that half a million people have already died, that infant mortality has increased by 20 to 30 per cent and that among the 600,000 who took part in the clean-up, the rate of cancer deaths was nearly three times higher than the norm.