CHERNOBYL, U.S.S.R. -- Less than one mile from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant stands a dead forest. Where there were once more than 70 acres of pine trees, now there are only spindly trunks, shorn of needles, tinged a strange rust color.
The "red-headed forest," as it has been nicknamed, extends north of reactor No. 4, which blew open in an explosion in the early morning of April 26, 1986.
"Pine trees are especially sensitive to radiation. They can withstand no more than a man can," said Alexander Kovalenko, information chief of the kombinat that runs operations in the 18-mile contaminated zone that rings Chernobyl.
In the shadow of the now entombed reactor, Soviet Army reservists work to decontaminate the forest, ripping up and burying trees and planting grass in their place. But 14 months later, hundreds of shriveled trees remain, testament to the deadly damage wrought by the nuclear power industry's most devastating accident.
In human terms, the accident has been officially documented: 31 dead, 237 initially hospitalized with acute radiation sickness, 135,000 people evacuated from towns and villages in the 18-mile contaminated zone that extends from the Ukraine into the Byelorussian Republic. In addition, Soviet experts agree that thousands of deaths will accumulate over generations due to the lingering effects of radiation. How many, nobody knows.
But while specialists dispute the future consequences of Chernobyl, the place itself is already indelibly marked. The view from here puts the tragedy in perspective, in a way that information from experts can never do. The consequences appear even more devastating than one imagined, and the recuperation better than one thought.
On the road into the heart of what is known as the "zone," village after village is lined with abandoned cottages where weeds are growing up along the side of wooden fences and wooden wells. Fields alongside the villages are untended, overgrown and without animals.
Most haunting of all is the city of Pripyat, which once housed 50,000 people, mostly workers from the plant, and is now empty, the most famous ghost town of the second half of the 20th century.
Laundry still hangs on the line in the multistory apartment buildings, bicycles still stand on the balconies. In the window of an apartment on Heroes of Stalingrad Street one can see pantyhose lined up on a clothesline in an abandoned bathroom. Dead plants sit on windowsills; children's sand buckets stand untouched.
Outside, an even eerier impression is created, as if this city -- once described as the "most beautiful of Soviet atomic energy towns" -- had just emerged from the sea. Sand, used to cover the contaminated earth, is everywhere. And yet even so, green grass has stubbornly sprouted this spring.
The view down the broad alleys, past the playground that borders the nursery school and further on to the Pripyat school, looks for a minute like any Soviet city: long rows of block housing, all similar. But here, there are no people, no children. On a June day, the wind blows freely through the emptiness.
The inhabitants of Pripyat left on April 27. The debate about whether they were evacuated soon enough is still going on. Recent articles in the Soviet press, in particular a stinging piece in the monthly Yunost, have suggested that people were left in the dark and encouraged to go about their business on the day of the accident, a Saturday.
Officials bristle at the mention, and dismiss the reports as "subjective" reporting, based on rumors. Asked about a meeting at which the second secretary of the Kiev region allegedly told inhabitants to go about business as usual that Saturday, Kovalenko scoffed: "These were professionals. You could not tell them fairy tales."
In recent weeks the Soviet government has allowed foreign journalists based in Moscow to visit Pripyat, and even the Chernobyl plant, which had been off limits since the accident. Before that, some foreign experts had been allowed to visit the area, sometimes accompanied by visiting foreign journalists.
No one will say for sure when Pripyat will be repopulated, although it has been listed among those settlements where decontamination efforts have been halted for the time being.
So far, 16 of the zone's 179 inhabitated areas have been repopulated, Kovalenko said, and another 55 are now being readied.
"What we are doing today specialists a year ago thought could be done only in 20 years," said Kovalenko.
Massive decontamination efforts have caused radiation levels to drop markedly in some areas in the zone, officials said.
"Levels that were before considered to be nothing now cause people to start running around alarmed," said Kovalenko.
But in the eagerness to show how normal everything is, people still rely on simplistic evaluations, which overlook the long-term consequences of radiation.
"How can you be afraid of something you can't see," asked one evacuee.
Officials said most of the plant's workers are back at work in the zone. According to Vasili Komesarchuk, head of the personnel department for the Chernobyl plant, 90 percent of the 4,000 workers at the two operating reactors at Chernobyl worked there before. In a brief interview, he said he knew of cases of people who fled the night of April 26 but said they were only a handful.
Even the plant's top three officials, now awaiting trials for criminal negligence, stayed there doing their duty during the night of the accident, Kovalenko said. Twenty-seven people from the area were expelled from the party for their actions during the crisis, and 67 more received reprimands.
Now 9,500 people work in the contaminated zone, not counting an unknown number of Army reservists who serve here for six months at a time, or until they reach the maximum allowable dosage of five rems, or roentgens, a year. A roentgen is a unit of measure for ionizing radiation.
A total of 3,500 people are now working at the plant, manning the two reactors that went back on line at the end of last year. Now the task is to put reactor No. 3, next door to the damaged No. 4, into operation "before winter," Kovalenko said.
Gennadi Yaroslavtsev, the plant's new chief engineer and the second to hold the post since the accident, said his main task is to fulfill the state plan for energy output. The plan requires 13 billion kilowatt hours of electricity from Chernobyl in 1987; so far this year it has produced 5.6 billion.
The decision on building Chernobyl's fifth and sixth units, interrupted by the accident, has been put off until 1991, according to Kovalenko.
Operating the plant has required a colossal effort and cost. The staff is working half shifts to cut down exposure to radiation. On the average they are receiving at least double pay, in some cases five times their previous salaries.
In addition to people at the plant, another 4,000 work for the kombinat fulfilling ancillary jobs, including the clean-up. Another 2,000 are temporary workers, most of them working on the decontamination of reactor No. 3, where radiation levels are highest.
According to Kovalenko, the highest radiation level is now measured on the newly constructed roof of reactor No. 3, which registers 100 milliroentgens an hour.
In a gesture to show how much the danger has decreased, Kovalenko, standing on gravel-covered ground about 300 yards from reactor No. 4, brandished a dosimeter that showed a reading of about nine milliroentgens.
"Here after the accident, they measured thousands of roentgens," he said, but declined to be more specific.
Across a canal stood reactor No. 4, now covered with cement and topped with a black roof, ominous and still. Neither the bustle of trucks nor the acres of electrical power lines and towers now in operation on the other side of the road could offset its haunting presence.
Inside reactor No. 1, business continued with only occasional signs of tension. Workers went through special checks to decontaminate their clothes.
Next month the Chernobyl accident will again be recalled with the trial of three leading figures in the drama: Viktor Bryukhanov, the former director of the plant; Nikolai Fomin, its former engineer; and Anatoly Dyatlov, his former assistant.
According to Kovalenko, the three have been held in a Kiev prison since last June. He said he expects they will be tried for criminal negligence.
To the extent possible, many involved in the drama have adjusted to their life. A new town is being built at Slavutich, 35 miles from the plant, and this year there will be 2,000 apartments for workers who will be able to travel to and from the plant by train.
There are other signs of life returning to Chernobyl. Right after the accident, all the birds flew off and wild animals fled the surrounding forests. Last fall, the crows returned, then sparrows, then storks and nightingales.
"This spring, I could hear the nightingales outside my window," said Kovalenko.