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Nearly 28 years after Chernobyl disaster, life goes on in 'exclusion zone'

Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review - A worker takes a break outside Chernobyl's Reactor No. 4 (background) on Thursday, March 27, 2014. The reactor meltdown on April 26, 1986, was the worst nuclear power plant accident in history.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Justin Merriman  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>A worker takes a break outside Chernobyl's Reactor No. 4 (background) on Thursday, March 27, 2014. The reactor meltdown on April 26, 1986, was the worst nuclear power plant accident in history.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review - A man walks through the Woodworm Star Memorial in Chernobyl that shows the names of the two towns and 184 villages that were evacuated because of the radiation fallout from the disaster at Chernobyl in 1986.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Justin Merriman  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>A man walks through the Woodworm Star Memorial in Chernobyl that shows the names of the two towns and 184 villages that were evacuated because of the radiation fallout from the disaster at Chernobyl in 1986.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review - A doll rests on a bunk bed in an abandoned nursery school abandoned since 1986 in Kopachi Village in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. The school is one of the few remaining structures from the village that was torn down and buried after being contaminated by fallout from the Chernobyl disaster.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Justin Merriman  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>A doll rests on a bunk bed in an abandoned nursery school abandoned since 1986 in Kopachi Village in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. The school is one of the few remaining structures from the village that was torn down and buried after being contaminated by fallout from the Chernobyl disaster.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review - An abandoned nursery school sits in Kopachi Village in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. The school is one of the few remaining structures from the village that was torn down and buried after being contaminated by fallout from the Chernobyl disaster.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Justin Merriman  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>An abandoned nursery school sits in Kopachi Village in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. The school is one of the few remaining structures from the village that was torn down and buried after being contaminated by fallout from the Chernobyl disaster.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review - The remains of an abandoned nursery school in Kopachi Village in the Chernobyl exclusion zone have been left to ruin in the nearly 28 years since the nuclear reactor meltdown. The school is one of the few remaining structures from the village that was torn down and buried after being contaminated by fallout from the April 26, 1986, disaster.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Justin Merriman  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>The remains of an abandoned nursery school in Kopachi Village in the Chernobyl exclusion zone have been left to ruin in the nearly 28 years since the nuclear reactor meltdown. The school is one of the few remaining structures from the village that was torn down and buried after being contaminated by fallout from the April 26, 1986, disaster.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review - A ferris wheel is overrun by Mother Nature in Pripyat. The Pripyat amusement park was scheduled to open May 1, 1986, but was left to ruin after the Chernobyl disaster occurred on April 26 that year.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Justin Merriman  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>A ferris wheel is overrun by Mother Nature in Pripyat. The Pripyat amusement park was scheduled to open May 1, 1986, but was left to ruin after the Chernobyl disaster occurred on April 26 that year.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review - An amusement ride rusts in Pripyat's amusement park, which was scheduled to officially open May 1, 1986, but was left to ruin after the Chernobyl disaster occurred on April 26.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Justin Merriman  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>An amusement ride rusts in Pripyat's amusement park, which was scheduled to officially open May 1, 1986, but was left to ruin after the Chernobyl disaster occurred on April 26.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review - Bumpercars sit in the overgrown weeds and brush in Pripyat's amusement park, which was scheduled to officially open on May 1, 1986, but was abandoned after the Chernobyl disaster on April 26.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Justin Merriman  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Bumpercars sit in the overgrown weeds and brush in Pripyat's amusement park, which was scheduled to officially open on May 1, 1986, but was abandoned after the Chernobyl disaster on April 26.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review - A grocery cart rusts outside of an abandoned supermarket in Pripyat. The city was once the home to nearly 50,000 people before it was evacuated 40 hours after the Chernobyl meltdown began.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Justin Merriman  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>A grocery cart rusts outside of an abandoned supermarket in Pripyat. The city was once the home to nearly 50,000 people before it was evacuated 40 hours after the Chernobyl meltdown began.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review - An abandoned home sits along an overgrown street inside Chernobyl's exclusion zone, an area of more than 1,000 square miles around the site of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster of April 26, 1986.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Justin Merriman  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>An abandoned home sits along an overgrown street inside Chernobyl's exclusion zone, an area of more than 1,000 square miles around the site of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster of April 26, 1986.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review - A building sits quiet along the former town center of Pripyat inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone. The city was once the home to nearly 50,000 people before it was evacuated 40 hours after the Chernobyl meltdown began.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Justin Merriman  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>A building sits quiet along the former town center of Pripyat inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone. The city was once the home to nearly 50,000 people before it was evacuated 40 hours after the Chernobyl meltdown began.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review - A man walks down a quiet street of Pripyat inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone. The city was once the home to nearly 50,000 people before it was evacuated 40 hours after the Chernobyl meltdown began.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Justin Merriman  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>A man walks down a quiet street of Pripyat inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone. The city was once the home to nearly 50,000 people before it was evacuated 40 hours after the Chernobyl meltdown began.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review - Misha Tefflenko, 25, a government tour guide who lives in Chernobyl — staying 15 days inside the town and 15 days outside — walks down an abandoned street in Pripyat. 'I have been here for three years; You see, no mutations,' he says while holding up his hands.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Justin Merriman  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Misha Tefflenko, 25, a government tour guide who lives in Chernobyl — staying 15 days inside the town and 15 days outside — walks down an abandoned street in Pripyat. 'I have been here for three years; You see, no mutations,' he says while holding up his hands.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review - A doll rests on a bunk bed in an abandoned nursery school abandoned since 1986 in Kopachi Village in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. The school is one of the few remaining structures from the village that was torn down and buried after being contaminated by fallout from the Chernobyl disaster.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Justin Merriman  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>A doll rests on a bunk bed in an abandoned nursery school abandoned since 1986 in Kopachi Village in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. The school is one of the few remaining structures from the village that was torn down and buried after being contaminated by fallout from the Chernobyl disaster.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review - The former soccer stadium in Pripyat sits in ruins after being abandoned for nearly 28 years. The city was once the home to nearly 50,000 people before it was evacuated 40 hours after the Chernobyl meltdown began.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Justin Merriman  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>The former soccer stadium in Pripyat sits in ruins after being abandoned for nearly 28 years. The city was once the home to nearly 50,000 people before it was evacuated 40 hours after the Chernobyl meltdown began.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review - Misha Tefflenko, 25, a government tour guide who lives in Chernobyl — staying 15 days inside the town and 15 days outside — is reflected in the window of an abandoned nursery school in Kopachi Village.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Justin Merriman  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Misha Tefflenko, 25, a government tour guide who lives in Chernobyl — staying 15 days inside the town and 15 days outside — is reflected in the window of an abandoned nursery school in Kopachi Village.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review - An abandoned home is surrounded by trees from nearly 28 years' worth of growth inside Chernobyl's exclusion zone, an area of more than 1,000 square miles around the site of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster of April 26, 1986.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Justin Merriman  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>An abandoned home is surrounded by trees from nearly 28 years' worth of growth inside Chernobyl's exclusion zone, an area of more than 1,000 square miles around the site of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster of April 26, 1986.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review - Cabinets sit empty in an abandoned home along an overgrown street inside Chernobyl's exclusion zone.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Justin Merriman  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Cabinets sit empty in an abandoned home along an overgrown street inside Chernobyl's exclusion zone.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review - Books and papers deteriorate on a desk in an abandoned nursery school in Kopachi Village in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. The school is one of the few remaining structures from the village that was torn down and buried after being contaminated by fallout from the Chernobyl disaster.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Justin Merriman  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Books and papers deteriorate on a desk in an abandoned nursery  school in Kopachi Village in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. The school is one of the few remaining structures from the village that was torn down and buried after being contaminated by fallout from the Chernobyl disaster.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review - The sign for Chernobyl is along a quiet street in the desolate town on Thursday, March 27, 2014.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Justin Merriman  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>The sign for Chernobyl is along a quiet street in the desolate town on Thursday, March 27, 2014.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review - A doll rests on a bookshelf in an abandoned nursery school in Kopachi Village in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. The school is one of the few remaining structures from the village that was torn down and buried after being contaminated by fallout from the Chernobyl disaster.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Justin Merriman  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>A doll rests on a bookshelf in an abandoned nursery school in Kopachi Village in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. The school is one of the few remaining structures from the village that was torn down and buried after being contaminated by fallout from the Chernobyl disaster.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review - A handwritten book gathers dirt in an abandoned nursery school in Kopachi Village in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. The school is one of the few remaining structures from the village that was torn down and buried after being contaminated by fallout from the April 26, 1986, disaster.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Justin Merriman  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>A handwritten book gathers dirt in an abandoned nursery school in Kopachi Village in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. The school is one of the few remaining structures from the village that was torn down and buried after being contaminated by fallout from the April 26, 1986, disaster.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review - A building towers above the former main street of Pripyat inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone. The city was once the home to nearly 50,000 people before it was evacuated 40 hours after the Chernobyl meltdown began.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Justin Merriman  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>A building towers above the former main street of Pripyat inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone. The city was once the home to nearly 50,000 people before it was evacuated 40 hours after the Chernobyl meltdown began.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review - A magazine is strewn on a floor covered in items left behind in an abandoned home inside Chernobyl's exclusion zone.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Justin Merriman  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>A magazine is strewn on a floor covered in items left behind in an abandoned home inside Chernobyl's exclusion zone.
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Saturday, March 29, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
 

CHERNOBYL, Ukraine — Misha Tefflenko's family of eight fled the village of Fabrykivka in 1993, when radiation levels rose too high.

They and 300 other townspeople were resettled across Ukraine.

“We were given a new flat, but my parents had to find new jobs, and my granny was settled in another town,” said Tefflenko, now 25 and a tour guide in what he calls “a rather unique place.”

He is checked for radiation exposure “all the time, and once a year we have to pass a medical test. … I have been here for three years. You see, no mutations,” he said, lifting his hands.

On April 26, 1986 — when Russia still ran things here — control-room workers at Reactor No. 4 of Chernobyl's nuclear plant committed a fatal series of errors during a safety test. They triggered the reactor's meltdown and the world's worst nuclear accident.

Today's “exclusion zone” — more than 1,000 square miles — remains one of Earth's most toxic sites. About 9,000 people work there in the shadow of the ruined reactor.

The Wormwood Star Memorial is a dirt road, flanked by signs naming the two towns and 184 villages evacuated because of radiation fallout; flowers adorn some of them.

In the city of Chernobyl, nine miles from the abandoned nuclear plant, a statue of a trumpeting angel marks what happened here.

Workers inside this part of the zone follow a routine: 15 days in the city, then 15 days out of the zone. Everyone is tested for radiation as they leave.

Shops, apartment buildings, fire and police departments, and a post office are staffed in the quarter of the city that is habitable. A hotel offers rooms for less than $20, a “radiation-free lunch” and souvenirs.

“All this area was contaminated in 1986, but it was cleaned up well,” Tefflenko said, leading six tourists and two journalists.

Visitors can rent Geiger counters to monitor radiation levels at various sites. In Chernobyl's inhabited sector, the counters register normal readings — “totally safe,” according to Tefflenko.

Some residents, mostly retirees, have returned here or to surrounding villages to die in their old homes. One brick house has cheerful purple window shades, but many are empty — overrun by trees, vines and weeds.

Tefflenko said these resettlers “tell me the main reason they come back here is because of poor housing” elsewhere.

Outside the 300-man municipal fire station, an enormous gray monument portrays life-sized firefighters battling the meltdown; 134 of them died in the disaster. A marble slab topped by candles proclaims: “To those who saved the world.”

“Hotter” portions of the exclusion zone lie under mounds of earth — contaminated buildings, buried to prevent radiation leaks. In Kopachi, an abandoned village deep inside the zone, mounds dot the grassy, lightly wooded landscape, topped by red-and-yellow radiation markers.

An abandoned nursery still stands in a wooded area. Tattered dolls are scattered inside; children's books, a pillow and a toy rabbit lie on small bed frames in a room with peeling green paint. Here, especially in the soil near trees, the Geiger counters begin beeping.

No one knows how many people died of radiation exposure. In 2005, the United Nations estimated 4,000 deaths; critics such as Greenpeace predict 93,000 cancer deaths in time.

“All that information is still kept secret,” Tefflenko said.

Radiation is an invisible enemy, he said, as birds chirp and Geiger counters beep. “You can't see it, you can't feel it, you can't taste it, you can't smell it.”

About 300 yards from Reactor No. 4, another memorial honors “Heroes … who protected the world from nuclear disaster.”

Exclusion zone workers speaking several languages pass by. They are decommissioning all of the reactors, building a sarcophagus to replace a concrete-and-steel cover erected over Reactor No. 4 in 1986, and monitoring the exclusion zone. Those who work in this high-risk area must leave nightly and return to Chernobyl.

Only 40 percent of the melted reactor has been examined because of radiation risks, Tefflenko said.

Pripyat, another ghost city, was designed to showcase the quality of Soviet life; a fifth of its 50,000 residents worked at the nuclear plant. All were evacuated 40 hours after the meltdown began. They left their belongings, told they would return. They never did.

Near Pripyat's entrance, a radiationmarker warns of the “Red Forest” — pine trees with needles turned reddish-brown by fallout. Wild boars, foxes, deer, lynx and horses roam here, Tefflenko said.

The place is post-apocalyptic: abandoned apartment blocks, a cultural center, a hotel, a supermarket and other buildings, some with trees jutting through their roofs. In an amusement park that hadn't opened before the meltdown, fading yellow bumper cars and a rusting yellow-seated Ferris wheel await riders who will never come.

A stadium's wooden bleachers are rotting; its soccer pitch is overgrown. The vegetation “is spreading the radiation contamination. It absorbs it and then recycles it,” Tefflenko said. Over a moss-covered “hot spot,” the Geiger counters beep furiously.

Some buildings appear looted; Tefflenko says any furniture deemed safe was taken to Chernobyl.

In an empty apartment, some furniture remains along with a calendar dropped on the floor. Its date: April 1986.

Betsy Hiel is Trib Total Media's foreign correspondent. Email her at bhiel@tribweb.com.

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