Rare Look Inside a Radioactive Ghost Town

I'm writing this from an old Russian train headed north toward a nation that President Bush has labeled an "outpost of tyranny." A place that journalists, especially Americans, rarely get to go.

On that, more in a minute. But first, let me tell you a little about Chernobyl. We spent the day there Tuesday, and it was an eerie sight. A ghost town, tended by a small community of brave people struggling to keep it safe. Reactor No. 4, which exploded 20 years ago next week, is surrounded by an exclusion zone five times the size of New York City. Not many outsiders choose to venture in.

I don't want to give away too much from the stories you'll see on ABC starting next week. But among the people we met are a few Americans -- nuclear engineers doing their best to make sure Chernobyl doesn't jeopardize the world again. Locked inside its crumbling cement sarcophagus, the failed Reactor No. 4 is still full of enough radioactivity for dozens of atom bombs.

Scientists say the sarcophagus, built in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, wasn't built to last this long. There are already so many holes in it that when we held up a Geiger counter, the numbers were off the charts.

15 People Remain in Town Evacuated After Disaster

Nearby we saw the empty city of Pripyat, a company town, evacuated under a cloud of radioactive fallout. There's a Ferris wheel there, built for a May Day celebration that never took place. Chernobyl blew up on April 26. By May 1, Pripyat had been abandoned.

The birch trees of the surrounding forest have started to reclaim Pripyat. We found saplings growing on the rooftop of one apartment building. Aside from the sound of birds, it seemed to be the only sign of life.

We also met an extraordinary Ukrainian grandmother who never left Chernobyl. Actually, she told us she left for three days before she decided she didn't know what the fuss was about, so she went back home to her village. Only 15 people live there now. The village used to have a population of several hundred. With no one left to talk to, she has long conversations with her livestock.

"Radiation?" she scoffed. "At this point, I must be immune!"

Back, briefly, to the reason for our train journey. We left Kiev at sunset for a brief foray into the neighboring nation of Belarus. In addition to lots of ongoing political turmoil, Belarus has the misfortune of living downwind from Chernobyl. Many of Chernobyl's victims live there.

As we left Kiev's grand central station, an old Soviet-style marching tune came over the loudspeakers. ABC News producer Almin Karamehmedovic and I climbed into our bunks in the overnight train to Minsk. The whole thing felt like a scene from "North by Northwest." We have our own private compartment along a long corridor. You could easily film a Cold War spy movie here.

The little old lady who serves as the purser just asked us to smuggle a bottle of pepper vodka for her. It's going to be an interesting journey.