Video: Chernobyl disaster still being felt

By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 4/26/2006 7:48:34 PM ET 2006-04-26T23:48:34

Twenty years after the world's worst civil nuclear disaster, Mother Nature’s chirping birds is just about all that breaks the eerie silence around Chernobyl.

While radiation levels have returned to normal in some parts of the 18-mile safety zone around the closed reactor, there are still plenty of areas off limits. The radiation varies wildly. In one location it's elevated, but not too high. However, if you walk just a couple of feet, it jumps 10 times. Part of the reason is moss there concentrates radiation.

For 10 days in 1986 a cloud of radioactive particles spread over the surrounding region. A heavy dose of radiation has kept Alexander Nihaev, one of the first rescuers on the scene, in the hospital for years.

And sisters Svetlana and Julia — children at the time of explosion — now have damaged thyroid glands. Four-thousand children developed thyroid cancer, caused by Chernobyl.

More than 500,000 people were evacuated or took part in Chernobyl's cleanup. Now resettled, many complain of failing health.

But there is a fierce debate over the long-term effects of Chernobyl. Recent U.N. reports say while radiation is linked to many disorders, most people received low doses — of no lasting threat to their health. And radiation-related cancers will kill up to 9,000 people — far fewer than many predicted.

American radiation expert Burton Bennett is an author of one U.N. report. He says the real problem is that the population affected by Chernobyl lives like it is dying. 

“They should think about their lifestyle,” he says. “They should stop smoking, limit alcohol consumption.”

But the U.N. reports have critics too. The environmental group Greenpeace says the death toll will be much higher — 93,000.

Even though there are safety questions, thousands of people still work in the exclusion zone on two-week shifts.

A wild horse population is thriving and a few hardened locals like Granny Nastya have returned to a disaster zone where time stands still.

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