'The Zone Of Alienation'

THE MAIN DOOR, NEARLY BLOCKED BY overgrown bushes and weeds, rattles in the cold Ukrainian wind. The former day-care center's rooms are strewn with abandoned dolls, teddy bears, tiny shoes and slippers, shattered glass. Water from melting snow on the roof drips through cracks in the concrete ceiling. Between rows of metal cribs, child-size gas masks peer up from the floor where they fell during the rushed evacuation a decade ago. In the kitchen, beside a desiccated piece of bread, an open notebook displays its last entry, a grocery list dated April 25, 1986. At 1:23 the next morning, two miles away at the Chernobyl nuclear power facility, a test of the plant's emergency system caused a power surge in reactor number four. The resulting explosion and fire lit up the sky and spread a 32,000-square-mile swath of fallout across Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. Today an off-limits area 38 miles in diameter, officially called the "Zone of Alienation," surrounds the day-care center and the rest of the town of Pripyat, which had a population of roughly 50,000.

It was the worst civilian disaster in the history of nuclear energy -- and could be repeated. Two of Chernobyl's four reactors remain in use, despite continuing safety problems. Severe cracks have been reported in the concrete sarcophagus that surrounds reactor number four. Yet thousands of people continue to live and work here. Roughly 500 of them have even moved back into their old homes inside the zone. And the Ukrainian government says it can't afford to close the plant and permanently seal the sarcophagus without billions in Western aid.

Would the job be worth such a price? Doctors in the region say the 1986 accident caused thousands of deaths from the lingering effects of radiation exposure. But at a conference in Minsk last month, medical researchers were shocked at the results of a European Union health study that said Chernobyl's toll has been wildly exaggerated. Although 760 children in the contaminated regions have developed thyroid cancer, the study said only three have died as a result. The study found no local increase in cases of leukemia, and one of the researchers dismissed as "very implausible" the notion that Chernobyl's radiation has caused significant numbers of deaths from other diseases.

Local scientists insist the deaths -- and the danger -- are real. Yet in and around Chernobyl, people carry on a semblance of normal life. About 12,000 people work at jobs inside the zone. The nuclear complex's 5,000 employees commute daily from Slavutych, a town just outside the perimeter. Says Nikolai Lebakh, the editor of the local paper: "You can't think too much about the danger or you'll go crazy."

Most of the zone's 500 residents are elderly people who were evacuated but came back; the lure of home can be stronger than the fear of death. "I was born here, and I want to die here," says Maria Shovkuta, 67, who lives in the village of Opachychi. She raises chickens and grows her own potatoes; many villagers gather wild mushrooms in the woods with no apparent fear of the irradiated soil. A neighbor boasts of having traveled all the way to Kiev to sell her harvest there. Vasil Herashchenko, 69, loves the local mushrooms. Yet he points out house after house in Opachychi where returnees have died. More than 100 villagers have come back since 1986, and fewer than half are still alive. Is radiation exposure to blame for so many deaths? No one can be sure, particularly because the returnees tend to be older people.

Local doctors are more worried about the young. "We are seeing a weakening of the immune system in children," says Dr. Oleksandr Urin, the director of Pediatric Hospital 14 in Kiev. At local hospitals the rate of birth defects has more than doubled. Doctors have seen a few small patients suffering from liver and rectal cancer, malignancies not common in the very young. "These are isolated cases so far, but they are warning signals about what may follow," says Dr. Urin. The full magnitude of the problem could take another decade to emerge, he believes.

Some Westerners suspect officials in Ukraine and Belarus of trying to gain more foreign assistance by inflating Chernobyl's damage. Officials and doctors in the contaminated areas accuse the West of trying to minimize its humanitarian obligations -- and its cash outlay -- by underestimating the problem. At this week's summit in Moscow, the leaders of Russia and Ukraine meet with their counterparts from the world's leading industrial countries, the Group of Seven, to try to hammer out a price for closing Chernobyl completely. The Ukrainians say it will cost more than $4 billion to decommission the two remaining reactors and to seal off the damaged reactor properly. They say the G-7 countries will have to bear almost all of that expense -- or the nuclear complex will continue to operate.

In strictly scientific terms, there may be only a shaky web of evidence implicating the Chernobyl accident in thousands of illnesses and deaths over the last decade. But that kind of detachment is a luxury far beyond the means of people who still live and work in the zone.