PRIPYAT, Ukraine—Before the fire, the vomiting, the deaths and the vanishing home, it was the promise of bumper cars that captured the imagination of the boys.
It will be 30 years ago Tuesday that Pripyat and the nearby Chernobyl power plant became synonymous with nuclear disaster, that the word Chernobyl came to mean more than just a little village in rural Ukraine and that this place became more than just another spot in the shadowy Soviet Union.
Even 30 years later—25 years after the country that built it ceased to exist—the full damage of that day is still argued.
Death toll estimates run from hundreds to millions. The area near the reactor is both a teeming wildlife refuge, and an irradiated ghost-scape. Much of eastern and central Europe continues to deal with fallout aftermath. The infamous Reactor Number 4 remains a problem that is neither solved nor solvable.
But to the boys on the night before their world changed, nothing seemed more important than shiny blue and yellow cars, with actual steering wheels, almost ready for a 10-year-old to drive.
The bumper cars were to be turned on May 1, 1986, a seemingly impossible-to-live-through week away. So as May Day slowly neared, Alexandr Sirota and his friends couldn't resist sneaking down into the new park after dark, beneath the deep shadows of the yet unblinking new Ferris wheel, and under the inky dark of what would soon be the electrified roof over the bumper cars.
"We'd sit in the cars and make car noises," recalls Sirota, who's now 40. "It was everything we could imagine wanting in life at that time. As young boys, our lives seemed perfect."
These were the thoughts that consumed Sirota as he went to bed on April 25, 1986, and after he woke on April 26 and rushed off to School No. 1.
But as he slept, sometime after 1 a.m., the engineers who'd spent the previous 24 hours putting Reactor Number 4 through a stress test were getting nervous.
Even 30 years later, nuclear physicists familiar with the disaster disagree on what went wrong. The only area of agreement appears to be that somehow when the engineers attempted to slow the nuclear reaction by inserting control rods into the reactor core, the process actually sped up.
In a matter of seconds, the temperature inside the reactor increased by 3,000 degrees. The water used to cool the uranium suddenly evaporated, and in the sealed environment of the reactor the steam had no place to expand. That's when the roof blew, and an estimated 10 tons of the reactor's 200 tons of enriched uranium blasted into the sky.
Georgi Kopchinsky, who on April 26, 1986, was a director of the Soviet central committee on nuclear energy, still wrings his hands and smokes nervously as he talks about Chernobyl. He admits it's a very tough topic for him, in part because, he says, scientists should have known it could happen.
Three years before Chernobyl, he says, Soviet authorities had warned that a similar problem had been detected at other plants with the same kind of controlling devices. But no modifications were
"This was our arrogance at the time," Kopchinsky says. "We believed we were the masters of the atomic reactions. It was a horrible mistake."
After the roof blew, the walls collapsed and the superheated uranium melted and consumed all that fell into it. All that remained to protect the world from a 2,000-ton radioactive mass that was forming was the reinforced concrete foundation and four relatively thin walls. Above was only the open sky.
The 10 tons of radioactive debris streaming into the air spread out in all directions over northern, eastern and central Europe. Eventually, a scientific report commissioned by the European Parliament would estimate that, to some extent, Chernobyl radiation contaminated 40 percent of Europe.
It is difficult to imagine how long Ukrainian authorities must remain on guard. Estimates suggest the Chernobyl area won't be safe again until the year 4986. To put that in perspective, that's a span of time that if placed against modern human history would stretch from when King David ruled Israel and before the founding of Rome to now.
Tetiana Verbytska, an energy policy expert at the National Ecological Center of Ukraine, thinks few people really understand how challenging the legacy of Chernobyl is. There's a movement, she notes, aghast, even to shrink the radius of the no man's land that surrounds the plant from 18 miles to six. She warns there's no solution.
"We don't have the technology to fix the problem," she said. "We don't have the process to develop the technology to fix the problem, and we don't have the money to support the process to develop the technology to fix the problem. The solutions for our Chernobyl problems are very much 'seal it for now.' We will have smart children and smart grandchildren who in 100 years or so will figure out what to do."