By Richard Balmforth
PRYPYAT, Ukraine (Reuters) - Only a Hollywood doomsday movie can prepare a visitor for Prypyat, the ghost town at the epicenter of the world's worst nuclear disaster.
A poisoned corpse of a city, its crumbling, deserted buildings devoid of life stand as a symbol of human folly, lost dreams and broken childhood.
Just down the road from Prypyat, a short time after midnight on April 26, 1986, reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear plant exploded, spewing radioactive debris into the air after a safety experiment went horribly wrong.
It was the Cold War. Within days, the name 'Chernobyl' had become a byword across the world for Soviet bungling -- and callousness, since Moscow, obsessed by secrecy, did not come clean about the disaster for nearly 36 hours.
As a cloud of radioactive particles billowed across parts of Ukraine and neighboring Belarus -- then both part of the Soviet family -- a death knell sounded for the Soviet Union. It collapsed five years later.
More immediately, it doomed the young model city of Prypyat to become a museum piece for generations and turned a circular area with a radius of 30 km (19 miles) into a vast no-go zone, now officially called the Zone of Alienation.
As the visitor rockets by bus to Prypyat along a pot-holed road, windowless abandoned houses peer out from a screen of foliage which is steadily swallowing them up.
As Japan fights to control radiation leaking from its crippled Fukushima nuclear plant, the Chernobyl disaster remains the grim benchmark for just how badly things could work out.
Though the West saw the Chernobyl disaster as a colossal Soviet failure, locals around Prypyat put the accent on the heroism of local fire-fighters and other emergency workers.
They went straight to the scene and in the ensuing days and weeks sought to bring the situation under control. Exposed to high levels of radiation, few of them are alive today.
The older nearby town of Chernobyl, which gave its name to the plant, was relatively untouched by the disaster. Though three-quarters of its population was evacuated, it provides a home today for about 4,000 people who work round the year in shifts, monitoring and maintaining the Zone.
Reactor no. 4 today is still covered by the concrete cover called the 'sarcophagus' which was hastily improvised to stem the outflow of radiation. Hundreds of tons of radioactive material remain inside, guides say.
With the present structure now leaking through scores of cracks, Ukraine is looking to drum up an extra $600 million from the world community for a new convex shell to be slid in place over it.
The road from the reactor to Prypyat takes a visitor past a sign proclaiming 1970 as the year of the town's founding as an "atomgrad", one of nine such model cities in the Soviet Union.
Finally, a broad, silent boulevard lined with empty apartment blocks leads into Prypyat itself.
On the eve of the disaster, it had a population of 50,000 with an average age of 28 years -- reflecting its status as a start-up city for young Soviet couples to begin families and shape prosperous lives.
Almost everyone there depended in one way or another on the Chernobyl plant which, so they said, was so safe it could be installed on Moscow's Red Square.
Salaries, perks, schools were good. Prospects were bright.
All that changed in a single night.
A vast complex, one of the hubs of Prypyat, housing shops, restaurants and the Palace of Culture, is now overgrown with saplings and brush, and strewn with broken glass and rubble.
The debris and wreckage around suggests looting and theft over the years. That itself poses the question of where some pieces of possibly highly-contaminated property might have ended up.
April 26 that year fell on a Saturday and Alexey Yermakov, who was then 12, remembers being handed iodine tablets to suck by the school nurse at school No. 3, seven or eight hours after he and his family heard a loud bang in the night .
"I remember they were very bitter. Civil defense workers also went round apartments handing out iodine. Mum would put drops of it in our milk," said Yermakov, a Kiev-based computer engineer.
"Dad told us to close all the windows and put rags soaked in vinegar around the door. We sat at home all that day, watching the helicopters overhead," he said. He was evacuated the next day in the afternoon with his mother and brother.
A children's amusement park, as joyless now as a cemetery, is home to the rusting hulk of a merry-go-round and dodgem-car track, and a giant Ferris wheel that never went into operation.
The wheel was to open on May 1 -- the traditional May Day holiday. But when the evacuation order came, families scooped up their children and headed out fast.
A local primary school -- its classrooms strewn with dolls, toys, exercise books, scraps of clothing and heaps of children's tables and desks -- suggest a sudden, scrambled exit.
Radiation levels in parts of the Zone open to the public are now said to be well below those liable to cause health problems, though levels out in surrounding woodlands may be much higher.
But one Greenpeace scientist equipped with a Geiger counter recorded a reading of 9 microsieverts per hour in the soil of the amusement park, the highest level recorded on the day of the visit. By comparison, flying at a height of 40,000 feet exposes a passenger to radiation of between 3 and 9 microsieverts per hour, depending on the route.
Greenpeace says that a March field investigation in parts of Ukraine outside the Zone shows contamination from caesium-137 persisting in milk products, mushroom and berries.
An international conference, marking the 25th anniversary of the disaster, is to be held in Kiev on April 19 when the world community is expected to pledge enough cash to finance the proposed new shell over the cracked sarcophagus.
This will buy more time, until the end of the century, in which to dismantle the old structure and work out what to do with the tons of radioactive material inside.
Ukraine says that since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 it has spent $12 billion on maintaining the Zone and providing healthcare and social assistance to those who lived in the affected area.
But there are no plans yet to regenerate Prypyat and breathe new life into the poisoned region.