The fallout, 400 times more radioactivity than was released at Hiroshima, drove a third of a million people from their homes and triggered an epidemic of thyroid cancer in children. Over the years, the economic losses—health and cleanup costs, compensation, lost productivity—have mounted into the hundreds of billions of dollars. As evidence of government bungling and secrecy emerged in its wake, Chernobyl (or Chornobyl, as it is now known in independent Ukraine) even sped the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Today the ﬁercely radioactive remnants of reac-tor four continue to smolder beneath the so-called sarcophagus, a decaying concrete-and-steel crypt, hastily built after the accident, that now threatens to collapse. Work is about to get under way on a replacement: an arched structure, the size of a stadium, that will slide over the sarcoph-agus and seal it off. With its completion the destroyed reactor will be out of sight. But for the region's people it will never be out of mind, as a slow-motion catastrophe continues to unfold.
Early estimates that tens or hundreds of thousands of people would die from Chernobyl have been discredited. But genetic damage done 20 years ago is slowly taking a toll. No one can be sure of the ultimate impact, but an authoritative report estimated last year that the cancer fuse lit by Chernobyl will claim 4,000 lives. Alexei Okeanov of the International Sakharov Environmental University in Minsk, Belarus, who studies the health effects of the accident, calls it "a ﬁre that can't be put out in our lifetimes."
Yet Chernobyl's most insidious legacy may be the psychological wounds borne by those who fled blighted homes, and by the several million who continue to live on contaminated land. "The psychological effects have been devastating," says Mikhail Malko, a physicist in Minsk. "Many women feel they will give birth to unhealthy babies or babies with no future. Many people feel they will die from Chernobyl."
Olesya Shovkoshitnaya doesn't know whether to blame Chernobyl for her terrible headaches and the fact that, she says, "sometimes I forget everything." But she has fond memories of growing up in Pripyat, built in the 1970s for the Chernobyl plant's personnel. "It was fantastic. It was a warm town, lots of trees, roses," she says over a bowl of the cherry dumplings called vareniki in Kyiv, about 70 miles south of Chernobyl, where she now lives. "We had sport classes. I played handball, swam, played checkers. We had music. I was in choir. I enjoyed my childhood."
That life ended when Olesya was ten. At 1:23 a.m. that April morning, technicians botched a routine safety test on reactor four. The graphite-core reactor, a Soviet design, had an inherent instability, and in seconds the nuclear chain reaction raced out of control. The reactor's cooling water flashed into steam, blasting apart the fuel rods. Western reactors are sealed inside heavy steel and concrete shells, but this one had little to contain the explosion. It blew off the roof, scattered the guts of the reactor around the building, and ignited a raging ﬁre in what was left of the graphite core.