- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 9, 2003

PRYPIAT, Ukraine The changes during the past five years at the Chernobyl nuclear power station are evident from the rooftop of a 13-story apartment building about a mile away.
The sarcophagus of its No. 4 reactor, the one that blew in 1986, looks sturdier than before, thanks to $300 million in upgrades. Plans are under way to permanently encase the structure to make certain the tiny cracks that developed on the hastily built original container don't let water in and start chemical reactions inside, perhaps causing another explosion.
Crews from France and Italy work in an adjacent field that will be the burial ground for the radioactive waste, which cannot be transported outside Chernobyl's "dead zone," the circle extending nearly 10 miles in all directions that received the most radioactive fallout.
The station's elongated administration building, site of a freak fire in 1993, is now painted a glaring white. The meandering Prypiat River that runs alongside the station is finally showing signs of life the occasional tracks of a mouse, hawk or fox on its banks.
Some things, however, haven't changed. The majestic green forest that spreads out like a delta into neighboring Belarus is deceiving. The forest is contaminated. In some spots, radiation reaches hundreds of times the normal background level.
The city of Prypiat, abandoned within hours of the 1986 explosion, remains a ghost town. Walls of a spacious kindergarten are still adorned by pictures drawn in a child's hand, while crumbling apartment blocks contain stoves, sofas and mattresses.
"Eventually this place will be swallowed by the earth," a guide tells his visitor as they trample through Prypiat's soccer field, inaugurated days before the accident and now overgrown with birch trees. "You know what the Bible says: 'Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.'"
A Kiev tourist agency offers tours to Chernobyl for people interested in "extreme eco-tourism." The daylong trip costs $193 for an individual, less per person for groups. To visit Chernobyl is to visit silence.
Ukraine decided to open the grounds around the station to tourists to teach them about the accident and to disseminate information about the challenges it faces.
"There is so much misinformation," said Mykola Dmytruk, assistant director of Chernobyl's information agency, Chernobylinform. "Trips like these are one way of combating it."
Tourist visits don't add much to the station's budget; last year, tours brought in about $3,000 after costs. Still, visitors are able to see the site and get a good look at the No. 4 reactor from a safe vantage point. Taking pictures up close isn't allowed to ensure terrorists can't study the station's security features.
Visitors also see the abandoned town of Prypiat, and, as a Geiger counter clicks rapidly, drive quickly past areas with elevated levels of radiation to visit the machinery graveyard. There, helicopters, trucks and cars used in the 1986 evacuation effort rust away. A private company sells approved vehicles as scrap metal. Only those with special permission can go inside the station.
In addition, visitors can visit with elderly residents who were evacuated from their homes but returned illegally over the years to take up gardening and raising pigs for food in the dead zone.
The station's most frequent visitors are scientists, teachers and journalists.
Chernobyl's most pressing problem today is lack of finances, said Mr. Dmytruk, of Chernobylinform.
Since the station closed its last operating reactor two years ago under international pressure, Ukraine has lost nearly $920,000 a day in energy exports. In addition, the country has received only a fraction of the nearly $1 billion in aid promised by the international community to offset those losses and finish building two other Ukrainian nuclear power stations, Mr. Dmytruk said.
"Because of that," he said, there is a strong feeling here the station should be restarted. "We all know that won't happen; it would be politically inappropriate. But there is disillusionment with the West."
Although foreign donors have been diligent in ensuring that a permanent structure is built over the No. 4 reactor's sarcophagus, Mr. Dmytruk and his colleagues are more worried about the area around the station. The contaminated forests are prone to fires in dry seasons, which could send their radiation to points farther west, but there is scant money for upkeep. Water from the Prypiat River flows into the Dnipro River and then into the Black Sea.
A major challenge has been to ensure that radioactivity from the station doesn't wander south.
There are other pressing issues: re-educating workers who will lose their jobs as the station shuts down, monitoring the health of the those working at Chernobyl and paying the electric bill.
"Just because you shut the station down doesn't mean it stops functioning," Mr. Dmytruk said. "It is a living organism."
Recently, the Kiev-based company that provides electricity to Chernobyl one of its partners is an American threatened to cut off energy because of debt. That is troubling, Mr. Dmytruk said, because even though the station doesn't generate electricity, the nuclear reactors have to be cooled.
"Can you imagine cutting electricity to a nuclear power station?" he asked.
Though the Ukrainian government annually budgets funds for Chernobyl, the station has been getting less and less money. The situation has become so critical that Ukraine's new prime minister, Victor Yanukovych, made an emergency visit to the station to meet with directors shortly after taking office. He promised more money.
Such promises mean little to the guards who man the security checkpoint on the road leading to the village of Paryshiv, which is home to 36 persons, mostly widows, who returned to their homes after being evacuated by Soviet authorities immediately after the disaster.
On a recent evening, the guards manning the checkpoint sat in a dark booth. Later, one of them, who did not want to be named, acknowledged that he and his colleagues had been without electricity for five days.
That doesn't keep the wolves at bay, he joked.
Mikhail and Maria Urypa come out their front gate to greet another visitor from abroad. They've been married for 46 years and have been through this before. In the past week they had answered questions from correspondents from HBO and a Brazilian reporter about why they decided to return to their home days after the Chernobyl accident.
The childhood sweethearts made clear why they refused to leave: Chernobyl is their birthright. They may live in a ghost town, but at least they will be buried next to their ancestors.
The Urypa homestead is simple: a house, a barn, a summer kitchen. What concerns Mrs. Urypa most now is how she will get milk now that her oldest cow has died.
"It's gotten bad in the last two months," she said as her husband insisted on entertaining his reluctant guests with home brew.
"Usually the authorities would come here to pay our pensions, bring groceries by truck and take us into town so we could buy clothes and other things. But they have stopped coming. I can't live without milk."
Mrs. Urypa operates the only ham radio in town, the lifeline of residents to the outside world. If someone gets sick, Mrs. Urypa calls Chernobyl authorities. If someone disappears, as one elderly neighbor did not long ago, she calls authorities.
"Come visit us again," Mrs. Urypa said, as she posed for a photo with her new, year-old heifer.
The consequences for Ukraine of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster will remain for generations. Although only a few dozen exposed people died soon after the accident, tens of thousands of cancer deaths are expected, Ukrainian doctors said.
"We are only now beginning to see the after effects," said Yevgheniya Stepanova, a physician from Ukraine's Academy of Medical Sciences who has been studying children affected by the Chernobyl accident. Children born during or shortly after the explosion will soon have children of their own.
"Only then will we have a better idea of the long-term effects of radiation," she said.
Meanwhile, in the most contaminated regions of the country, an alarming number of babies with Down syndrome are being born to young women.

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