About 181 tonnes of melted nuclear fuel and debris are sheltered there in a wrinkled shape that resembles an elephant’s foot. The contamination will persist for hundreds of years. A new, arch-shaped confinement structure is being built.
Tourists are told that they probably encountered more radiation on the flight to Ukraine than on the trip to Chernobyl.
Guides carry radiation detectors the size of walkie-talkies. On a recent day, when the device began beeping near the stricken reactor, indicating elevated radiation levels, Orel, the guide, said, “Don’t worry, that is only something to scare the tourists.”
Still, visitors must stop at two checkpoints upon departure and press into full-body Geiger counters, waiting for a reassuring click before they can climb back into their minivans.
Ryan Nolan, 31, a city planner wearing the green jersey of Ireland’s soccer team, came to see the amusement park that was supposed to open in Pripyat five days after the nuclear disaster. It is now a forbidden playland of rusted bumper cars, a carousel and a Ferris wheel. The cars of the Ferris wheel are the same yellow as signs that warn of radiation.
“Eerie,” Nolan said. “You’re waiting for zombies to come out of the woods.”
Stiliyan Petrov, 32, was nowhere near when Reactor No. 4 exploded. He was a boy of 6 in Bulgaria, more than 965km to the south. He became a soccer star, the captain of Aston Villa in England’s Premier League.
In March, Petrov received a diagnosis of acute leukemia. The Bulgarian national team doctor said he believed the illness resulted from exposure to the radiation of Chernobyl and a failure at the time by the country’s Communist leadership to inform citizens of the danger.
“It was in the late spring, the population was eating fresh radioactive vegetables and other foods,” Mihael Iliev, the Bulgarian team doctor who treated Petrov for 14 years, told the Sun of London in April. “Many people who were kids back then suffered cancer because of this. We called them the Chernobyl kids. Most were born in the same region as Stiliyan.”
The health consequences of Chernobyl are not so tidy and exact as the score of a soccer match.
Most of the nuclear fallout descended over Ukraine, and neighboring Belarus and Russia, scientists said. Estimates of potential deaths from the nuclear accident vary widely from 4,000 to hundreds of thousands. Precise investigation became difficult with the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Thyroid cancer is the most prevalent disease among victims. Studies have not indicated with any consistency an increase in leukemia in the affected areas, said Scott Davis, chairman of the department of epidemiology in the School of Public Health at the University of Washington. He has studied Chernobyl for more than 20 years and has made more than 80 trips to the region.
“There is no way to tell on an individual basis whether cancer is radiation induced or not,” said Davis, who is also affiliated with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, which has treated Chernobyl victims.
Wladimir Klitschko was 10 in the spring of 1986, living at a military airport in Kiev, the son of a colonel in the Soviet air force. He remembered participating in drills in school in case the US launched a nuclear attack: Hide in the shadows; run underground.