CHERNOBYL, Ukraine -- Twelve times a month — the maximum number of shifts the doctors will allow — Sergei A. Krasikov takes a train across the no man’s land and reports for work at a structure enclosing Reactor No. 4 known as “the sarcophagus.”
Among his tasks is to pump out radioactive liquid that has collected inside the burned-out reactor. This happens whenever it rains.
The sarcophagus was built 25 years ago in a panic, as radiation streamed into populated areas after an explosion at the reactor, and now it is riddled with cracks.
Water cannot be allowed to touch the thing that is deep inside the reactor: about 200 tons of melted nuclear fuel and debris, which burned through the floor and hardened, in one spot, into the shape of an elephant’s foot.
This mass remains so highly radioactive that scientists cannot approach it. But years ago, when they managed to place measurement instruments nearby, they got readings of 10,000 rem per hour, which is 2,000 times the yearly limit recommended for workers in the nuclear industry.
Mr. Krasikov, who has broad shoulders and a clear, blue-eyed gaze, has been baby-sitting this monster for eight years. He’ll stay until he is pensioned off and then leave his job to another man, who will stay until he is pensioned off. Asked how long this will continue, Mr. Krasikov shrugged.
“A hundred years?” he ventured. “Maybe in that time they will invent something.”
The death of a nuclear reactor has a beginning; the world is watching this unfold now on the coast of Japan. But it doesn’t have an end.
While some radioactive elements in nuclear fuel decay quickly, cesium’s half-life is 30 years and strontium’s is 29 years. Scientists estimate that it takes 10 to 13 half-lives before life and economic activity can return to an area.
That means that the contaminated area — designated by Ukraine’s Parliament as 15,000 square miles, around the size of Switzerland — will be affected for more than 300 years. All last week, workers frantically tried to cool the six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant 140 miles north of Tokyo.
But one had to look at Ukraine to understand the sheer tedium and exhaustion of dealing with the aftermath of a meltdown. It is a problem that does not exist on a human time frame.
Volodymyr P. Udovychenko drove to Ukraine’s Parliament building on Tuesday, dressed in a shiny purple shirt and tie. He is the mayor of Slavutych, which is home to most of the 3,400 workers who are still employed at the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station.
Most of them have not received their full salaries since January, and the mayor was requesting $3.6 million to pay them. “The leadership turns away from this, they think that Chernobyl doesn’t exist,” he said. “Chernobyl does exist. And those 200 tons — they also exist.”
To visit Chernobyl today is to feel time passing.
In Pripyat, the plant workers’ former bedroom community, a little over a mile from the plant, where 50,000 people were given a few hours to evacuate, wallpaper has slipped down under its own weight and paint has peeled away from apartment walls in fat curls.
Ice glazes the interiors. On a residential street, where Soviet housing blocks tower in every direction, it is quiet enough to hear the sound of individual leaves brushing against branches.
The wild world is gradually pressing its way in. Anton Yukhimenko, who leads tours of the dead zone, said that wild boars and foxes had begun to take shelter in the abandoned city, and that once, skirting a forest, he noticed a wolf soundlessly loping along beside him.
Not long ago, one of the city’s major buildings, School No. 1, came crashing down, its supporting structures finally rotted out by 25 winters and summers.
“This is a city that has been captured by wilderness,” he said. “I think in 20 years it will be one big forest.”
The public is not allowed within 18 miles of Reactor No. 4, but a photographer and I made the journey last week with Chernobylinterinform, a division of Ukraine’s Emergency Ministry.
At the checkpoint leading to the exclusion zone, there is a small statue of the Virgin Mary and a placard listing the amounts of cesium and strontium found in mushrooms, fish and wild game.
At the six-mile radius begins the zone of mandatory resettlement. A stand of scorched-looking trees marks the so-called Red Forest, after the color of dead pines that were bulldozed en masse and buried in trenches.
As we approached the plant, the guides’ radiation detector suddenly registered 1,500 microrem — 50 times normal, they said, perhaps because we had been caught by a gust of wind.
At the center of it all is the sarcophagus, its sides uneven and streaked with rust.
Since the early 1990s, Ukrainian officials have been working on a plan to replace it, finally launching a project called the New Safe Confinement, a 300-foot steel arch that will enclose and seal off the reactor for the next 100 years.
Its cost is estimated at $1.4 billion, to be paid largely by donor nations. The project, originally scheduled to be finished in 2005, has been beset by delays and financing shortfalls.
In the meantime, the winter’s snows are turning to rain, and rainwater leaking into the reactor could have unpredictable results, said Stephan G. Robinson, a nuclear physicist who works for Green Cross Switzerland, an environmental organization.
“In winter, it will freeze,” said Dr. Robinson, who was touring the site last week. “Water expands, and it breaks. Then maybe some of the inside collapses. A little cloud disappears through a crack. If there’s rain, it means there is a way in. And if there is a way in, there is also a way out.”
But even after the new arch is built, Mr. Krasikov doubts that it will be possible to end the long vigil over Reactor No. 4.
“Nobody knows what to do with what is inside,” he said. “There will be enough work for my children and my grandchildren.”
By evening, on our way out of the site, light is tilting through the pine forests, a peaceful enough scene except for the vivid yellow-and-orange triangles planted in the forest floor, warning of radiation.
Workers stream out through a wall of man-sized Geiger counters, each one waiting for the machine to thunk and flash green before making his or her way out of the exclusion zone and down the battered highway.
Tomorrow, they will come back to Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station for another day of work.