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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

I'm Robert Siegel, and we continue now with our coverage of this month's 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. On April 26th, 1986, a large steam explosion blew open the roof of Chernobyl's reactor Number Four. The explosion and fires released massive radioactive clouds into the atmosphere. NPR's Gregory Feifer traveled to Chernobyl to find out what's happened to the people who still live there.

GREGORY FEIFER reporting:

The concrete slab town of Pripyat was built in the early 1970s to house personnel from the Chernobyl plant. A day after the explosion, Pripyat's 50,000 residents were evacuated within two and a half hours. Today, the town is an apocalyptic scene, like visiting Pompeii.

Inside the main hotel water from melting snow drips down a stairwell onto the rubble-strewn floor. Dolls, games and photo albums lie abandoned on the floor of a nursery, along with gas masks local officials say were dragged out of the school's storage by looters.

In nearby villages, 20 year's growth of vegetation has enveloped houses. Time has also stopped in most of the exclusion zone's countryside, with wild boar and other wildlife thriving as if on a nature reserve.

People are banned from living in the exclusion zone around the plant, but only days after the evacuation, some residents began sneaking back in and have resisted pressure to leave ever since.

Six-year-old Maria calls her dog.

(Soundbite of child calling dog)

Maria was born in the exclusion zone in her family's isolated house near a large pond. Maria's godmother, 56-year-old Nadezhda Udavenko, says the slow pace of life has been interrupted only by the hordes of journalists recently visiting Chernobyl.

Ms. NADEZHDA UDAVENKO (Resident): (Speaking foreign language)

FEIFER: It's wonderful living here, she said, before reading poetry about her native town. Udavenko says she doesn't believe the area is contaminated.

Ms. UDAVENKO: (Through Translator) So many people now say they're sick and unhappy that they've suffered. They're blaming everything on radiation, but where were they all these years since the accident? My father still lives here, and he's 87 years old.

FEIFER: But others disagree. Irina Boyarchuk was a top Communist Party official in Pripyat, who says many former residents she knew died because of Chernobyl. Boyarchuk's nightmare began with a telephone call ten minutes after the explosion took place at 1:23 in the morning on April 26, 1986.

Now 70 years old, Boyarchuk says she couldn't believe her eyes when she stepped onto her balcony and saw glowing flames at the reactor.

Ms. IRINA BOYARCHUK (Chernobyl Resident): (Through Translator) We all thought the nuclear power station was the safest kind in existence. The town was built so close because the reactors were supposed to have been so well outfitted. We thought nothing dangerous could happen.

FEIFER: Residents were told to shut their windows, but party officials from Moscow ordered them to leave only the following day. They were told they'd be away three days. Most took almost nothing with them.

Pripyat's residents were actually lucky. They would have suffered far worse radiation if the wind had been blowing in their direction. Officials today insist almost none of Pripyat's evacuated residents suffered from radiation exposure.

The accident's most prevalent long-term effect was the spread of thyroid cancer, especially among children. Government estimates say a total of just over 100 cases of thyroid cancer among children are directly attributable to Chernobyl. But Luidmilla Kamagortsova, a legislator in Russia's nearby Briansk region, says the real number is actually much higher. Kamagortsova says hundreds more thyroid cancer cases have been registered in her region alone because the government hasn't taken measures to deal with the disaster's long-term effect.

Ms. LUIDMILLA KAMAGORTSOVA (Legislator, Russia): (Through Translator) It was an atomic bomb, I can't call it anything else, that spewed radiation over 74,000 acres. And it's all still there, untouched, except for the most minimal measures.

FEIFER: Irina Boyarchuk, who was evacuated from Pripyat and now lives near Kiev, says it's impossible to ignore the disaster's impact, even today.

Ms. BOYARCHUK: (Through Translator) There are many invalids. We former residents just aren't the same as we once were. I'm not the same anymore. I haven't been able to work for a long time.

FEIFER: Boyarchuk, whose husband died of cancer, says the ailments afflicting those still alive include weariness, aching bones and the psychological scars of a cataclysmic disaster.

Gregory Feifer, NPR News.

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