Thirteen years ago, the world awakened to the news that the Soviets had accidentally unleashed a nuclear nightmare: the explosion at Chernobyl Reactor No. 4.
Ever since, 60 Minutes has followed Chernobyl closely, with three trips, including a journey earlier this year into the belly of the beast: the sarcophagus, a steel and concrete encasement that holds more than 180 tons of melted nuclear fuel that will be deadly for thousands of years. As Correspondent Steve Kroft reports in this 60 Minutes Classic update, there are new concerns about how long the sarcophagus will last.
Ten years ago in the winter of 1989, 60 Minutes went to Chernobyl, three years after the accident.
There are few Russian words that have entered the American vocabulary as quickly or with as much impact. The literal translation of Chernobyl is "wormwood," the name of the great star that fell from the heavens in the Book of Revelations, poisoning the Earth's waters and heralding the day of judgment.
Getting to the reactor means driving through the Ukrainian countryside, past villages that had survived countless invasions, now empty. There are no people for miles. Finally, at perimeter to the crippled reactor, near the abandoned city of Pripyat, a few guards appear, keeping watch.
Home to Chernobyl workers and their families, Pripyat had been one of the largest Russian cities built in the 20th century, with luxurious, ultramodern accommodations by Soviet standards.
But the accident turned it into a ghost town. The only sign of life is the music, piped in continuously to keep the decontamination crews that had to be there from going crazy.
The people of Pripyat, 45,000 of them, weren't told that anything was wrong until 36 hours after the disaster, when the authorities came to evacuate them. They never returned.
"They're all over the Soviet Union," says Dr. Robert Gale of the University of California at Los Angeles Medical School, who accompanied Kroft on the trip.
"They've gone to other power stations," he says. "They've moved to Kiev. They're dispersed. Pripyat is a closed issue. It's an unacceptable risk. It's a town that is going to collapse under its own weight."
"It's impossible for us to imagine a worse accident," Dr. Gale says.
"This is the seduction of nuclear energy," he says. "It can be easy and cheap power but it requires a sophisticated society to do it. This was handled in an amateurish way by a technologically unsophisticated group of people playing with fire. And they got burned."
Few aspects of daily life are untouched by the disaster. In Broggen, the entire food supply must be shipped in daily from other parts of the country. The food grown locally is too radioactive for the people living there to consume every day.
But the food is too valuable to just throw away, so iis scattered to other parts of the Soviet Union on the theory that if some people eat radioactive food occasionally, it won't pose any threat.
At the Institute of Clinical Radiology in Kiev, authorities prepare for long-term consequences. They have begun the almost impossible task of monitoring the health of 600,000 people exposed to Chernobyl's radiation.
The biggest impact will be on the next generation and on generations yet unborn. In some areas, children are served all three meals at their schools to cut down on their chances of being exposed to contaminated food. They are checked once a year for thyroid problems, and 10 percent have shown signs of some abnormalities.
Subsequently, the Soviet people have begun asking themselves: Are we ready for nuclear power? Somewhere underneath all that steel and concrete, there's still a mass of plutonium, and it will be there for the next 20,000 years.
Five years after the first report, 60 Minutes went back to Chernobyl to see the sarcophagus and to meet the scientists and engineers risking their lives maintaining it.
Dr. Alexander Borovoi, a physicist, leads the scientific team at Chernobyl. When he arrived at Chernobyl, he was told they needed experts on nuclear reactors.
"I told them that the experts on nuclear reactors had done all they could. They organized the Chernobyl catastrophe. What you need now are physicists," he recalls saying.
The nuclear genie was put back in the bottle, but no one knew what was going on inside. Physicists needed to answer some very important questions: Where was the nuclear fuel? What kind of condition was it in? Was it capable of producing another explosion?
There was only one way to find out: Someone had to go inside and have a look. That job fell to a group called the Stalkers.
When the scientists and Stalkers first went into the sarcophagus in 1986, no part of the building was safe. Today, there are still rooms where even the Stalkers refuse to go. But the radiation levels have diminished and the building is much more accessible. After doing a lot of checking, it seemed safe enough for 60 Minutes to go inside and have a look, and the Ukrainian hosts agreed.
It was like walking into another world, or perhaps entering the wreck of the Titanic, the only sound, one's own footsteps and breathing, and the chatter of the Geiger counter.
There were walls and walls of rusty dials and gauges that must have gone haywire that April morning in 1986. They're frozen now at the moment of disaster. It takes 15 minutes to reach the destination: the main control room.
It was in that room that the worst engineering disaster of the 20th century began, during a routine test of the reactor at low power. It's cold and sterile as a morgue now, sheathed in heavy plastic.
"We observe the sarcophagus in almost exactly the same way a doctor watches a patient," says Dr. Borovoi.
"I remember each time I left the place, I had the feeling of leaving a tomb," he says. "And despite all my scientific interest and curiosity, I would be happy if the sarcophagus didn't exist at all. It's a horrible building."
"Psychologically, it has an oppressive effect,"
he says. "I find it difficult to put my feelings into words. It's like some ominous music, full of foreboding, perhaps like Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony."
It's been estimated that some of the scientists and Stalkers at Chernobyl have received radiation doses of up to 1,000 rems, the equivalent of 10,000 chest X-rays, 60 times the allowable dose for nuclear workers in the United States.
For their efforts, they are paid $50 to $l00 a month. When not working, they live in the town of Chernobyl, whose original residents have long since been evacuated and replaced by a few thousand essential personnel: scientists, guards and technicians who, often without heat and electricity, live for months at a time.
At night, they get together over vodka or grain alcohol to talk about their latest findings and the state of their lives.
"I don't want my stay here to end until I get at least a small success," says Dr. Borovoi. "I need a victory. I need a victory, even if it's a small one."
But that victory could prove illusive. When Kroft returned earlier this year, he found that the situation had deteriorated.color>
The sarcophagus shows signs of deteriorating long before it was supposed to.
In the decade before the accident, doctors in the old Soviet Republic of Belorussia, just miles from the Chernobyl plant, treated seven children with thyroid cancer. In the decade that followed, they've treated 424. And doctors fear that was just the beginning.
"There will be approximately 8,000 cases in that [Belarus], primarily of people who were young children at the time of the accident," says Keith Baverstock, a radiation specialist at the World Health Organization.
Baverstock predicts an additional 8,000 cases in Russia and the Ukraine over the next 50 years. But many other dire predictions made shortly after the accident have not come true.
A decade after the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, there were significant increases in leukemia and birth defects attributed to radioactive fallout. And scientists expected to see the same thing 10 years after Chernobyl, where radiation levels were 200 times higher than in Japan. But that hasn't happened
Baverstock and other scientist theorize that the radiation at Chernobyl was released over a few days across a vast area, while the radiation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was much more intense, released in a fraction of a second in relatively confined areas.
But Baverstock and the World Health Organization caution that there has been little follow-up on the 600000 cleanup workers and almost 400,000 residents evacuated. In the decades ahead, there may be unusually high numbers of breast cancer, lung cancer and stomach cancer since those diseases take longer to develop, he says.
The World Health Organization dismisses as fiction claims that tens of thousands of people have already died and places the number of known fatalities at no more than 40.
"They look at it much more in terms of it being a catastrophe with the environment, a pollution of the environment, which they don't like to see, which has a health impact, a social impact, a psychological impact and an economic impact," says Baverstock.
In any case, the impact on people in the area has been catastrophic. Some of the worst areas of contamination extend far beyond Chernobyl, where wind and rain smeared cesium, strontium and other radioactive elements across large stretches of the Ukrainian and Belorussian countryside.
Hundreds of villages have been abandoned, and 150,000 people have been uprooted and relocated, mostly to crowded apartment buildings in unfamiliar cities.
Compounding the fears of those who live in the region is the unresolved fate of the reactor. The Ukranian government has agreed to shut down the one remaining reactor by the end of the year, as long as the West makes good on its promise to provide $2 billion to build new power plants.
What about the condition of the sarcophagus? There are signs that it is crumbling and radioactive leaks have been detected. The sarcophagus was built around the plant, to contain the radiation with the expectation that it would last at least 30 years.
But now 12 years later, it is in dire need of repair. There is currently no viable plan to shore it up, and it is estimated that the fuel inside will remain lethally radioactive for generations to come.
Copyright 1999 CBS. All rights reserved.