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 April 26, 2016
Ruined Chernobyl nuclear plant will remain a threat for 3,000 years

 Before the fire, the vomiting, the deaths and the vanishing home, it was the promise of bumper cars that captured the imagination of the boys.

It will be 30 years ago Tuesday that Pripyat and the nearby Chernobyl nuclear plant became synonymous with nuclear disaster, that the word Chernobyl came to mean more than just a little village in rural Ukraine, and this place became more than just another spot in the shadowy Soviet Union.

Even 30 years later -- 25 years after the country that built it ceased to exist -- the full damage of that day is still argued.

Death toll estimates run from hundreds to millions. The area near the reactor is both a teeming wildlife refuge and an irradiated ghost-scape. Much of eastern and central Europe continues to deal with fallout aftermath. The infamous Reactor Number 4 remains a problem that is neither solved nor solvable.

But on the night before their world changed, nothing seemed more important to the boys than shiny blue and yellow cars, with actual steering wheels, almost ready for a 10-year-old to drive.

They knew they would have to wait till May 1, 1986, for the bumper cars to be turned on -- a seemingly impossible-to-live-through week away. So Alexandr Sirota and his friends couldn't resist sneaking into the new park after dark, beneath the deep shadows of the yet-unblinking new Ferris wheel, and under the inky dark of what would soon be the electrified roof over the bumper cars.

"We'd sit in the cars and make car noises," recalls Sirota, who's now 40. "It was everything we could imagine wanting in life at that time. As young boys, our lives seemed perfect."

It wasn't just the new bumper cars, or the new amusement park. Their hometown, Pripyat, had been swampland 30 years before. Now it was a city built to serve the future. And the driver of that future was visible southeast of town, the four massive reactors of the Lenin Nuclear Power Plant, which in common parlance was called Chernobyl, for a village some 9 miles distant.

As the boys sat in the bumper cars, dreaming of the future, they knew what had to happen next. An adult would flip switches and draw some of the plentiful electricity a mile down the wires from the station, probably Reactor Number 4, as that was the nearest. The rest would be magic. Life would be magic.

Those were the thoughts that consumed Sirota's dreams as he went to bed on April 25, 1986, and after he woke on April 26 and rushed off to School No. 1. Looking back ,it was the death of this dreamlike childhood that would come to haunt him -- as much as the months of hospitalizations, as much as the Geiger counter that became his most common clothing accessory, as much as watching his mother's beautiful, long, blond hair fall out in clumps.

For Sirota, the worst nuclear accident in history didn't begin dramatically. That morning, he sat in class and contemplated how to best glue colored paper to a jar as a May Day gift for his mother.

"Someone came in the room and called our teacher, said it was an emergency meeting in the teachers' meeting room," Sirota recalls. "We were told to study quietly. Of course we didn't. The teachers were gone forever. For more than an hour we sat around. I suppose they were trying to figure out what to do, and it wasn't an easy discussion. Something was wrong, but we didn't know exactly what."

Slowly word filtered through the school that the meeting was about problems at the plant. The kids pressed their noses against the glass of the classroom windows to watch as, across the street, on the manicured lawn of the city's new hospital, the first military helicopters landed. They were soon surrounded by a jumbled chaos of emergency vehicles.

The kids opened windows and started shouting questions to those milling about on the street below. "What happened?" "Have you seen it?" "Is that the army?" But the adults didn't know much more. It was a fire at the nuclear plant. Someone used the word "avariya," meaning "accident."

The aspen, birch, fir and oak trees in the small strip of forest outside the windows blocked their view, but the students knew there was a bridge just a short run away from which they could peer at the accident without obstruction.

"To kids, it was too tempting to pass up," Sirota recalls.

He grabbed his jar, some paper and glue -- evidence that he intended to work on the gift -- and sprinted toward the plant.

Sirota wasn't the first to reach the small bridge, which ran over rail lines on the south side of town, but he remembers that it wasn't yet crowded, either. He remembers running up to the railing, half throwing himself in the way that boys do, eyes wide, hoping to see excitement.

Instead, he saw smoke, and not enough to hold the attention of a 10-year-old for long.

"It looked more like fog than fire," he recalls. "We were looking at the reactor, but we couldn't see any destruction."

The bridge they were standing on wasn't yet known as "The Bridge of Death." That would come later.

Early that morning, just after 1 a.m., while those in Pripyat dozed, the engineers who'd spent the previous 24 hours putting Reactor Number 4 through a stress test were getting nervous. The readings weren't right. The radiation levels were climbing too high.

But the Soviet mindset at 1 a.m. on April 26, 1986, was very different from what it would be 24 hours later. In fact, the global perception of nuclear power was about to change.

"We knew, with certainty, with arrogant certainty, that we were in control of the power we were playing with. We could make the forces of nature bend to our will. There was nothing we could not do," recalls Sergiy Parashyn, who'd been an engineer at the plant since 1977 and had arrived there within the hour. "This was the day, of course, when we learned we were wrong."

Parashyn, who later would become the director of the complex and remains one of Ukraine's foremost experts on nuclear energy, says that as the dials indicated problems, the safe approach would have been to shut down the test.

"If we had, all would have been well," he says. "That was not the course chosen."

Later reports would call the staff inexperienced, poorly trained. But that was not how they perceived themselves, Parashyn recalls. In their own minds, they were the best and the brightest, leading the way into a glorious future where power was abundant and life would have no limits. Their plant, after all, was only 16 years old.

So as the radiation levels climbed, instead of stopping the test, those in charge ordered it to continue. They would find the limits and learn from that. And when they reached that limit, and the temperature inside the sealed reactor began to climb, and climb beyond expectations, Parashyn says they did what seemed prudent: They hit what he calls "the shut-down button."

It turned out to be a huge mistake.

"Imagine you are driving a car, quite fast, and you see an obstacle in the road," he explains. "Naturally, you hit the brakes to slow down and avoid the obstacle. But now imagine that the brakes have been wired incorrectly, and touching the brakes actually acts as an accelerator. When you try to slow down, you speed up, into the obstacle.

"Chernobyl was built with this mistake. Had the operators done nothing, it would have been fine -- it would have corrected itself -- but they had no way to know this, until this moment."

Even 30 years later, nuclear physicists familiar with the disaster disagree on what went wrong. The only area of agreement appears to be that somehow when the engineers attempted to slow the nuclear reaction by inserting control rods into the reactor core, the process actually sped up.

It was a known flaw. Something similar had happened three years earlier during tests in Lithuania, and a warning had gone out, recalls Georgi Kopchinsky, who on April 26, 1986, was a director of the Soviet central committee on nuclear energy. As he talks about Chernobyl, he wrings his hands, smokes nervously and admits it's a very tough topic for him.

"We knew this," he says. "Three years earlier we'd sent out a warning to all plants with reactors with these absorbers, warning of this problem. But no actions had been taken. This was our arrogance at the time. We believed we were the masters of the atomic reactions. It was a horrible mistake."

When Chernobyl's operators raised the control rods into the reactor to absorb the flying neutrons and slow down the reaction, the action took only about 15 seconds to complete. But in those seconds, the reaction, instead of slowing, sped up and the temperature inside the reactor reached 3,000 degrees, turning the water used to cool the uranium into steam.

In the sealed environment of the reactor, the steam had no place to expand. That's when the roof blew, and an estimated 10 tons of the 200 tons of enriched uranium blasted into the atmosphere.

After the roof blew, the walls collapsed and the superheated uranium melted and consumed all that fell into it. The long-term problem was forming, a 2,000-ton mass of metal, concrete and uranium that was pooling below the reactor.

But that was a long-term problem. The more immediate concern was the 10 tons of enriched uranium streaming into the atmosphere above Chernobyl, and spreading out in all directions over northern, eastern and central Europe. Eventually, a scientific report commissioned by the European Parliament would estimate that, to some extent, Chernobyl radiation contaminated 40 percent of Europe.

The time was 1:23 a.m. The world had changed. But those sleeping just downwind had no idea.

It was about 9 a.m. when Sirota got bored and decided to leave the bridge.

Earlier, in the dark, the bridge had been crowded with adults watching the multicolored flames of burning graphite from the reactor. They'd "oohed" and "aahed." It was beautiful. They'd also been soaking up a radiation dose determined to be about 500 roentgen, or two-thirds of a fatal dose. The legend is that none of those who stood on the bridge that morning survived.

Sirota says that isn't true. He survived. He saw others who survived. Still, as he left the bridge, he was leaving behind many who would soon die agonizing deaths.

All told, about 4,000 people would eventually die from the accident, according to a report by the World Health Organization and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Others say those numbers are wildly low. Alexey Yablokov, a former environment adviser to Russian President Boris Yeltsin, estimated the global death toll to be 1.44 million. Other reports placed the cancer death totals at 30,000 to 60,000. Belarusian physicist Georgiy Lepin, a vice president of the association of liquidators of Chernobyl, the men brought in to fight the fire and clean up, estimated that within a few years, 13,000 rescue workers had died and another 70,000 were left unfit for work. The official number of disabled Chernobyl rescue workers today in Ukraine is 106,000.

A United Nations study says that "5 million people currently live in areas of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine that are contaminated with radionuclides due to the accident; about 100,000 of them live in areas classified in the past by government authorities as areas of 'strict control.' " About 4,000 people, mostly children, developed thyroid cancer from the radiation, the U.N. says; the survival rate for the cancer is 99 percent.

Sirota, of course, knew none of this that morning.

Clutching his jar, his glue, his colored papers, and knowing that school was out, he did what any 10-year-old boy would as the world was collapsing. He ran home to see whether he could find his mom.

She found him. She was dressed for the office, her long blond hair perfect, falling across her shoulders, as always. He noted that she wasn't happy. She scolded him for his dirty school clothes. She asked if he'd been anywhere near the plant. He lied and said the students had been cleaning the schoolyard, a lie she would not learn about for a decade.

She worked for the Pripyat Palace of Culture. She oversaw the city's literary needs, bringing in books and writers, and organizing a "Workers Writing Program." That day she was hosting a poetry reading.

It was hard to imagine that the news from the plant was bad. The city looked normal.

"She told me to stay inside until she got home, just in case," he recalls.

Their apartment was on the southern edge of town, and faced the reactor. From a higher floor, above the trees, he could have looked at it. As it was, he opened the window and straddled the sill, talking with the friends below who had managed to get away from school and then back outside.

They'd talk, then run off and gather another tidbit of information and run back to shout it at him. It became a game.

When his mom returned, it was with the news that they'd need to prepare for a three-day evacuation. As the sky outside his window glowed red, she put him to bed in his coat and boots. He woke to loudspeakers: "Attention, attention, dear comrades. . . . In the interest of the safety of the people, which is a priority to us, there is reason to evacuate."

The announcement warned that they were to leave at 2 p.m. Buses would be provided, and they'd be taken to their evacuation locations. They were told not to worry. Police would watch their homes and make sure there was no looting.

"Only take what is necessary and vital documents," the loudspeakers repeated, over and over.

"We were going away for a few days. It seemed like a picnic, like an adventure," Sirota recalls. He filled a little suitcase with two changes of clothes, some pajamas. His mom made room in her bag for a few of his favorite toys. "It never occurred to me that we wouldn't be coming back, that this life was over."

Pripyat, after all, was an ideal place to live. One propaganda poster told residents, "Let the Atom be a Worker, not a Soldier." The medians dividing fresh new streets were thickly planted with flowers. The towering apartment blocks were still unchipped. The bay cut into the Pripyat River was perfect for swimming in the summers and boating much of the rest of the year. The city hadn't even had time to install the obligatory statue of Vladimir Lenin on the pedestal awaiting it in the central square. Everything was new and the future promising.

Twenty years before, this was a region of small and poor farming villages. By 1986, it housed the Soviet version of yuppies. Education levels were high. Wages were high. Parents videotaped kids' parties, just as they would have in the United States. In those videos, the kids looked eerily similar to how they would have looked in Kansas City or Charlotte, from the style of their clothes and haircuts to their broad smiles and constant laughter.

So as the bus pulled out of town, heading toward Kiev 60 miles south, Sirota wasn't worried. He and his mom were off to spend a couple of nights with his aunt. But he'd be back soon enough.

Those days became weeks, then months, then, after the studies were complete, the official verdict was that people could return to live in Pripyat in 3,000 years.

It became clear he'd left more than clothes and toys behind. He'd never been sick a day in his life before. He was proud of that. His mother bragged about that.

But he spent most of the rest of 1986 in the hospital. He would not be cured, however. Doctors would tell him it was psychosomatic, and the official Ukrainian medical diagnosis for many who complained of radiation-related illnesses after Chernobyl was "radiophobia." The so-called "Chernobyl victims" were more afraid of what had happened than actually sick, went the official line. They should be fine, or at least suffering no more than anyone else.

Sirota would continue to return to the hospital for stays of a month or more every year, at least once, until recently.

"Who knows better what I need now than me?" he asks. "They give me the medicines and the needles. I take care of myself now."

His eyes tear up, though, when he looks at photos of his mother's beautiful hair.

"Most of her hair fell out," he explains. "She cuts what's left very short."

Kopchinsky, the Soviet nuclear official, remembers the first phone call coming in at about 2 a.m. He was in Moscow at the time.

"Something had happened at Chernobyl, and it was something bad. That was what we knew."

Immediately, calls went out for Soviet nuclear experts to gather in Moscow and discuss what to do next. At about the time the sun rose, he says, they got their first indication that "it was very serious." By 11 a.m. they'd dispatched a planeload of scientists to the site to make a quick assessment.

On the scene it was chaos, recalls Parashyn, the Chernobyl engineer. "We had no idea what we were looking at, the depth of the disaster, that first morning," he says. "We had meetings, loud meetings, where we tried to figure it out."

What they figured out was the worst nuclear-energy disaster in human history, far worse than the explosion at Kyshtym nuclear complex in 1957 in what was then the Soviet Union, which released 70 tons of radioactive material into the air, or the 1957 fire at the Windscale Nuclear Reactor in northwestern England, which forced a ban on milk sales for a month, or the Three Mile Island disaster in Pennsylvania on March 29, 1979, where a cooling malfunction led to a partial meltdown.

All of central and eastern Europe was at risk. Even today, in Bavaria in southern Germany, wildlife officials warn hunters not to eat the meat of wild boars, which continue to show high levels of radiation contamination.

Across Europe, children were advised to stay indoors that April and May. In East Berlin, shoppers were astonished to find grocery shelves teeming with fresh lettuce, which usually would have been sent across the wall for wealthier West Berliners. But West Berliners didn't want the tainted stuff, so East Berlin had salad.

Chernobyl changed the way nuclear engineers viewed nuclear power. "Safety culture" -- the idea that protecting the people and the environment should be emphasized over all other goals -- became the watchword.

Helen Rycraft, a senior nuclear safety officer at the IAEA in Vienna, calls the Chernobyl accident as "a complete watershed."

"The entire industry changed," she says.

"Safety culture had not been properly instilled in nuclear power plants in the USSR prior to the Chernobyl accident," the IAEA report concludes. "Many of its requirements seem to have existed in regulations, but these were not enforced. Many other necessary features did not exist at all. Local practices at nuclear plants, of which it may be assumed that practices at Chernobyl were typical, did not reflect a safety culture."

After Chernobyl, Rycraft says, the regime of secrecy and competition that had been the norm among nuclear nations began to erode. "It taught us we need to learn from each other."

"It was the first major accident where organizational issues were identified as a key factor," she says. "The Soviets called safety culture 'the ghost in the machine.' It's the healthy questioning behind every aspect, every detail, of a nuclear program."

Despite the health problems, Pripyat remained a fundamental part of Sirota's dreams. He would next see the city six years later, in 1992. He and a friend sneaked in to take a look around at their old home. He remembers being most surprised by the fact that very little had changed.

They'd been told to leave their furniture and most of their clothes behind because officials knew it would all be radioactive. Special teams had come and emptied the contents of the apartments into the streets to be burned, and buried.

But poor and opportunistic Ukrainians had arrived to pick through their belongings before they were destroyed. They found a city filled with treasures, often guarded by nothing more than a threat that seemed less real than a free couch, refrigerator or wardrobe of clothes.

When he recounts what happened 30 years ago, Sirota can vividly recall the details, not because they were wildly dramatic, but because on his visit to his home nothing looked out of place. Windows hadn't shattered in a nuclear wind. Foundations hadn't shaken from exploding atoms. The earth didn't bake in escaping radioactivity.

Yet what had been a perfect childhood, in what seemed like a perfect town, and in what they were told was on the edge of a perfect future, had ended, abruptly.

Sirota had hoped beyond reason to gain it back when a few years ago he bought a small house at the end of a gravel lane just outside the the exclusion zone imposed around the old reactor. Move the modest but sturdy house across the pasture and it would be inside an area identified as unsafe for human habitation for the next 3,000 years.

There are several reasons he moved back to the area. For one, his house, on a decent plot of land, cost the equivalent of just $125. Even in poor rural Ukraine, that's cheap.

It would be even cheaper inside the exclusion zone. Ukrainian officials are known to have turned a blind eye to a small group of very poor, and illegal, residents who returned to the homes standing inside the forbidden zone. Officials estimate that 197 squatters hide there. And for short spells, workers can live inside the zone. There's even a hotel for overnight visits.

The wildlife is tough to beat. Wolves and bears and big cats, even wild horses, thrive inside the perimeter. In a field across the road from Sirota's house, he points to the wild Przewalski's horses. Originally from Central Asia, they're endangered, wiped out in many of their former ranges. They seem to thrive around his house.

Still, he's painfully aware that the radiation settled into the soil, from which it's drawn into the roots of trees and grass and mushrooms.

"I don't eat the mushrooms from here," he says. "I avoid eating the game. That's what they tell us: We're safe as long as we don't."

But many do. At the tiny grocery in his 600-resident village of Dytyatky, he points out a freezer of local cuts of meat. The cuts are roughly done, uneven, hunters' cuts of meat, not a butcher's clean, even meat packages.

When 70-year-old Maria is asked whether she worries about the health risks of food coming from so close to Chernobyl, she waves a hand and spits: "Ach, radiation. I can't see it. Why should I worry?"

Sirota worries, but he's drawn to this place. He lives with a Geiger counter around his neck. He carries a second one in case the first malfunctions.

The constant clicking as the Geiger counter measures the local radiation serves as a soundtrack to his life. The faster the clicking, the higher the radiation levels. When the clicking goes into overdrive, he moves on, to find a place where the levels are safer.

Even at home, resting or cooking, the clicking is constant, click . . . click . . .click.

His work these days is showing visitors around the irradiated area. A couple of days a week he passes through the heavily guarded gates into the contaminated zone. It's how he earns a living.

"People want to see this," he explains. "I can understand the curiosity, but there isn't much to see."

Then, in what used to be the plant's lagoon running along the edge of the Pripyat River, he shows off the 9-foot-long catfish. In the summer, he'll toss loaves of bread and watch their long bodies spiral over one another in the muddy water as they dine.

"They say it's just the warm water that gets them so big," he explains. "But I don't think you should eat the fish."

His Geiger counter has gone from fast clicks to a solid buzz (clickclickclickclick).

When the steam burst through the roof of Reactor Number 4 in 1986, it took with it 5 percent of the enriched uranium. That means 10 tons vanished. It also means 95 percent, or 190 tons, remained. They're still there.

After the blasted reactor partially collapsed into the nuclear material, it created a radioactive blob of uranium, concrete, steel and assorted junk weighing about 2,000 tons. Ideally, Ukraine would remove the material. Sergiy Parashyn grabs a pen and paper as he talks about the problems with that.

"We do not know how to do this," he explains. "We do not have the technology to do this. It must be something new."

He sketches the blob, then makes a quick drawing of a tractor with a scoop on one side and a large rotating blade on the other. He smiles at the crude drawing, then shrugs.

"One problem is that the material is decaying and is brittle, and when we cut it up to transport it to disposal bins, it will very likely fill the air with radioactive dust," he explains. So the tractor has to be able to operate in a radioactive environment, it has to be able to control and eliminate any dust and it has to operate in an area that will not be at all safe for humans. "Maybe something like this would work, maybe it wouldn't. We don't know. That's a problem."

It's a problem because while 5 percent of the radioactive material caused problems that continue 30 years later and will continue to cause problems for eons to come, the other 95 percent of the material could represent about 20 times the problems.

For instance, if mistakes are made and the brittle material is released into the atmosphere, they're back to square one. If the material gets into the Pripyat River, it will flow into the Dnieper River. The Dnieper River is the water source for Kiev. The Dnieper is the primary water source for much of Ukraine.

This is why Ukrainian officials are counting on what they call a sarcophagus to contain the site, a massive structure that looks like a Quonset hut being assembled behind a wall that is intended to deflect radiation from the decaying plant from workers.

When finished, it will be rolled across the crumbling concrete of the surrounding ground to cover and further seal the dangerous reactor. The work is expected to be completed in 2018, though that is just a guess. It's expected to last 100 years. It's not nearly long enough.

Reactor Number 4 today is essentially an unplanned nuclear-waste dump. To serve in that role requires it to last for 3,000 years. That means the area surrounding Chernobyl will be safe to inhabit by people again in the year 4986.

How likely is that? To get an idea of what it means to contain and control a deadly and potentially devastating radioactive pile in Ukraine for 3,000 years, consider what the world looked like 3,000 years ago:

The Iron Age was beginning. The Trojan War was fairly recent news. Egypt had Pharaohs. King David was succeeded by his son, Solomon. Canaanites were the big world traders. Christ was 1,000 years from showing up. Muhammad was 1,500 years away.

The legendary founding of Rome, of Romulus and Remus and the wolf, wouldn't take place for 300 years.

It's not simply that a lot has changed in the last 3,000 years, it's that almost everything has.

And yet, Detlef Appel, a geologist who runs PanGeo, a Hamburg, Germany, company that consults on such nuclear storage issues, notes that 3,000 years probably isn't long enough. He suggests that truly safe radioactive waste storage needs to extend a million years into the future. Think back to when man's earliest relative began to walk the Earth.

"We can trust human endeavor, perhaps, for a few hundred years, though that is doubtful," he said. "Storage implies a way to retrieve the materials. It requires trained personnel, maintenance, updating and security. Clearly, nothing man made is more than temporary, and therefore it isn't adequate."

Even the continents will have moved in a million years.

Tetiana Verbytska, an energy policy expert at the National Ecological Center of Ukraine, worries that people are far too easygoing about Chernobyl. Among government officials right now, mindful of the 30-year anniversary, there is a movement to shrink the radius of the highly contaminated no man's land from 18 miles to 6.

"The move to reduce the highly contaminated zone has nothing to do with science and everything to do with public relations," she says. "In Ukraine, each April we make wonderful speeches about our commitment to dealing with this problem, and the rest of each year we hope the problem will just go away."

There are other reasons to worry. Ukraine is creaking under a civil war against insurgents backed by Russia and scraping by with an economy that in the decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union has been looted by a series of oligarchs. It doesn't have the money to fund an educational system that can be expected to create legions of top scientists and engineers.

Officials speak very proudly of the new sarcophagus roof that is being put into place. But the finish date on that has been repeatedly backed up, and there's no guarantee that its 2018 date won't be moved again.

A variety of disasters could still strike. The site's existing covering, built in haste after the accident, could collapse, shattering the brittle mix of radioactive materials below and sending nuclear dust into the atmosphere to mix with rain. There could be an earthquake. The entire site is fragile.

Olga Kosharna, the lead scientist at the Ukrainian Department of Energy and Nuclear Safety in Kiev who oversaw safety at Chernobyl in the 1990s, recalls walking the roof above the shattered reactor and being horrified to find holes that had been burned through the concrete.

The shoes she wore that day were highly contaminated and had to be destroyed.

Cancer remains a health problem in Ukraine thirty years after the Chernobyl disaster. The number of cancers-caused deaths is disputed, but is believed to be in the thousands.

Cancer remains a health problem in Ukraine thirty years after the Chernobyl disaster. The number of cancers-caused deaths is disputed, but is believed to be in the thousands.

Alexandre Polack, a spokesman for the European Union, notes in an email that the date to begin removing radioactive material from the site is still 20 to 30 years away. "The current shelter covering destroyed Reactor 4 was reinforced in recent years and seems stable," he writes. "However it was built in haste after the accident and never intended as a long-term solution."

Verbytska emphasizes that the mass of uranium debris inside Reactor Number 4 is now a mess that goes beyond human ability to clean up. Others dismiss the situation as a problem, but one that technology can fix.

"We don't have the technology to fix the problem," she says. "We don't have the process to develop the technology to fix the problem, and we don't have the money to support the process to develop the technology to fix the problem. The solutions for our Chernobyl problems are very much 'seal it for now.' We will have smart children and smart grandchildren who in 100 years or so will figure out what to do."

After the disaster, radiation burned off the tops of the trees. Soviet officials ordered the trees cut down and buried deep. But they failed to properly encase the buried wood. As a new forest grew unchecked above the radioactive remains of the old forest, the new wood was also highly radioactive. The whole thing will have to be dug up and encased and buried again, properly.

Still, Sirota burns it for warmth, though he acknowledges that is probably unsafe.

Sirota's tour takes him across the Bridge of Death, which looks just as remote and harmless today as it did to him that morning, and on into Pripyat, which remains a modern Pompeii, a city abandoned in an instant, the trappings of what had been daily life left where they lay.

The difference is that while Pompeii is carefully managed for tourists, Pripyat is still very much an outlier on the tourist map: perhaps Pompeii were Vesuvius still erupting.

The roads remain wide, though they're overgrown today, vividly, eerily green. Trees grow out of old manholes, and through cracks in the old parade ground. The lichen on the trees is long, spindly, beautiful and eerie. There is a plastic baby doll in the doorway of an old administrative building. Sirota notes the doll is clearly Western in style and that it appears to have been left by a photographer trying to add emotional impact, to conjure memories of the children who once lived and played here.

"If you need to see the children who were once here, I'm here," he explains.

In his old school, a textbook remains on a desk. It is open to pages decorated with drawings of missiles and tanks and warplanes, the Cyrillic words reminding readers, "The stars of the Kremlin shine everywhere. . . . The children have a beautiful homeland. A better one does not exist."

Sirota's eyes often develop red rims as he talks about his old home, though he wipes away the tears before they run down his cheeks.

"Obviously, I'm drawn to Chernobyl," he explains. "It's the source of the greatest sadness of my life, but that's also because it was the source of my greatest joy. I feel that the accident at the plant stole a perfect childhood, a perfect life, from me. I know this isn't rational, but I stay here, hoping that someday I might get it back."