At the Children's Radiology Center across town, pale boys and girls from the contaminated zone lie listlessly, receiving intravenous treatment.
Thyroid cancer among children, almost nonexistent before the accident, has increased a hundredfold in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia.
"It's really awful for me as a doctor to see what's going on with people's health, because it's so much worse than in an average region," says Klimenko, a leading authority on radiation illnesses. "And we don't even know how bad it's going to get."
Defying the danger, a few hundred people, mostly pensioners, have returned to the off-limits "dead zone"--a Rhode Island-size area surrounded by barbed wire.
Deep in a silent forest, Irina Yashchenko, 53, weeps with joy at the arrival of rare visitors to the ghost town of Szheganka. She and her common-law husband, Ivan Khomenko, moved back to his two-room brick house in 1989 and remain the only residents of the former village of 600.
They have little but two dogs, a cat, electricity and each other. For provisions, they make occasional treks to the town of Chernobyl, which some service workers affiliated with the nuclear plant use as a temporary base.
"This is our home," Khomenko, 58, a retired woodcutter, says with a shrug. "We don't have enough health left to worry about radiation."
For the 5,000 people who are bused in daily to work at Chernobyl's two functioning reactors--another was closed after a fire--it's a simple matter of money.
The workers in the control room of reactor No. 1, monitoring a huge bank of computers and green-screened monitors, make $500 a month. That's 10 times the average Ukrainian income, and they are paid in coveted U.S. currency.
"There's a little risk working here," acknowledges shift foreman Valery Zakharov, 50, a Chernobyl worker since it began producing electricity in 1977. "But how could I not work here for that kind of money?"
The accident changed the face of nuclear power, prompting many nations to close, cancel or convert existing or planned nuclear power stations.
But money, not safety, is the overriding priority for cash-strapped Ukrainians in keeping open a plant they rely on heavily for power. They have already spent billions on Chernobyl and say they cannot afford to encase the badly cracked, 24-story-high sarcophagus, which they admit privately could cave in at any time, raising a giant cloud of radioactive particles.
In political brinkmanship that alarms nuclear safety experts, they are holding out for $4 billion in aid--more than the West wants to pay. Even if foreign donors come through, those living in the shadow of Chernobyl will be living with its deadly health and environmental legacy for years to come.
"Closing the Chernobyl nuclear power plant is a long and complex process," Environment Minister Yuri Kostenko said. "You can't just say, 'Close it,' and turn off the switch tomorrow."