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Thursday, 14 December, 2000, 12:08 GMT
The legacy of Chernobyl
Chernobyl nuclear power station
Chernobyl's last reactor is due to close
By Robin Aitken in the Ukraine

You probably won't be able to find the village of Masany on maps for very much longer. It must always have been a remote sort of place - tucked down in the south-east corner of Belarus a few kilometres from the border with the Ukraine. But these days it's deserted and you need a special permit to visit it.


It looks as though nature is proving remarkably resilient to the increased radiation levels

Yuri Sushko
Masany lies deep within the 30 kilometre exclusion zone which encircles the Chernobyl nuclear power station - the area which was most contaminated when the plant blew-up on 26 April 1986.

But despite the high levels of background radiation - the area is one of the most radioactive spots on Earth - Masany is not entirely uninhabited.

When we arrived, late on a sun-filled afternoon, two figures could be seen making their way across an otherwise un-peopled landscape.

Yuri Sushko and Slava Yevdokimov are both scientists who work in the zone on a two-week on, two-week off cycle. Their job is to measure radioactivity levels - in the soil, air, plants and animals - so that the contamination levels can be accurately tracked.

Yuri, a smiling, weatherbeaten sixty-something, said he loved his work . It's the solitude, the beauty and the wildlife, he told me - that and getting away from the wife and daughters.

Haven for wildlife

Measuring radioactivity
A specialist measures contamination around Chernobyl
Masany is indeed beautiful. The dense forests which surround it are a haven for wildlife which, undisturbed by man, thrives in this accidental wilderness.

The place teems with wild boar - a herd ran right across the path of our vehicle - and I was told there are more than 200 bird species regularly seen in the area.

In the past couple of years, rare European bison have been introduced by Belarusian scientists curious to see how they would do. We didn't see any but apparently the herd is thriving.

Yuri Sushko says it looks as though nature is proving remarkably resilient to the increased radiation levels. He doesn't take any chances himself though - he and Slava are careful not to eat or drink anything which originates in the zone.

But their attitude towards the radioactivity was strikingly relaxed which is also what struck me when, a few days later, my producer and I travelled to Ukraine to visit the town of Chernobyl itself.

Our guide, a vivacious Tartar woman called Rima, couldn't have been more matter of fact. To her, showing Western visitors around the power station and its environs was all part of the day's routine.

Living in Chernobyl

She took us first to Pripyat, the town built to house the Chernobyl workers when it was built in the 1970s, now utterly abandoned. It has a separate checkpoint of its own - the soldiers manning it were glad to talk and break the monotony of duty.

They had no worries about serving their time at Chernobyl and the radiation didn't bother them. The main problem was the boredom.

For a first time visitor, though, Pripyat is a sobering place. It had been a showpiece town, well provided for with amenities and good housing.

From the top of the lifeless hotel you got a good view of the place - the children's funfair with it's rusted big wheel, the hospital with a huge Soviet style slogan that reads The health of the people is the wealth of the country - which, given what happened here, makes further comment superfluous.

Pripyat, and all the immediate surroundings of the power plant, will be uninhabitable for hundreds of years but the plant itself is still working.

Indeed there are 5,000 employees still on the payroll who come and go each day. That is because number three reactor is still working though it's due to shut after a long international campaign. The closure is deeply resented.

We were then taken into the plant itself. In the administrative block, the deputy director told me darkly that closure was a "political" decision. The reactor could have carried on going for years, he said, if the plant had been upgraded like its equivalents in Russia.

Manning the controls
An operator works at the controls of the Chernobyl nuclear plant
In the control room of number reactor, the atmosphere couldn't have been more relaxed. Strange to think that just through the wall - albeit a very,very thick one - lay the ruins of the reactor that exploded.

In amongst the rubble are about 200 tons of radioactive fuel rods mixed up with fallen masonry and a kind of lava that was formed by the intense heat after the initial explosion.

All that will stay radioactive for 100,000 years, which, when you think of it, is far beyond any human time horizon. But that doesn't trouble the workforce much, it would seem. To them, closure is a bread and butter issue.

In thecontrol room, I was introduced to Andre Slavin, the shift leader. The following day we travelled to his home in the town of Slavutich - built after Pripyat was abandoned.

To Andre and his wife Elena the closure of Chernobyl is a sad, even a wrong, thing.

Slavutich, she told me, is a good town that is clean and beautiful. Her friends who have left regretted it, and she would like to stay - Chernobyl has been good to her.

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