Chernobyl must rank near the top of the catalogue of gruesome travel destinations.

Yet there is no shortage of takers, and thousands of people have flocked to the site of the worst civil nuclear accident in history.The plant is not open to the public, but official visitors get an enthusiastic welcome from a sea of charming, polyester-clad officials in matching deep-green blazers who hope the world will not forget their plight.

Chief engineer Boris Goncharov will even take you to the roof of the fourth reactor that blew off in 1986. "Come on, I'll take you up there - though it's not everyone's cup of tea," he enthused from the safety of a glassed-in room.

The remains of the nuclear accident that catapulted Chernobyl into infamy are encased, horrifyingly, in a cracking concrete sarcophagus known as the "Tomb."

On our side of the glass, red numbers flicked up and down on a plain black radiation meter. Someone explained it was not so much the number that determined the danger, as the concentration of radioactive material in the atmosphere.

The scientists who monitor the sarcophagus sometimes concede that no one really knows what is going on inside there, sending reporters scrambling for notebooks with a mind to a story about how the reactor could, theoretically, blow up again.

A pastel-colored leaflet gives some useful tips on the "Peculiarities of the Tomb as an atomic energy establishment."

"The Tomb is unique - it has no peers. The site is under-investigated and not completely controllable. The Tomb is a potentially dangerous site. There is no complete plan of the site (works were carried out in emergency conditions). The site is on territory strongly contaminated by radiation."

The world's paranoia, a need to talk and an open approach to the media, have opened Chernobyl's doors to thousands of people.

They grit their teeth and banish thoughts of malformed babies, men in radiation suits and Chernobyl's victims sentenced to poverty and ill-health in the former Soviet Union.

Succor comes from recalling the $300 million spent making the source of 6 percent of Ukraine's electricity safe.

Ukraine signed a memorandum with the Group of Seven industrialized nations last year on closing Chernobyl by 2000 for $3.1 billion in Western loans, but talks continue on fulfilling the agreement, and its workers are hoping for a reprieve.

"We get hundreds of foreign delegations a year," said Stanislav, a security man.

Visitors speed through the 19-mile diameter exclusion zone to get to Chernobyl - under Soviet jurisdiction when it blew up but now in independent Ukraine - to exchange ideas or perhaps even to satisfy a taste for the grotesque.

A Soviet-era message in house-size letters on the side of the deserted road in the zone reads: "The forest is a source of health."

A broken, red-striped deck-chair lies on the grass near a house where a Chernobyl family must once have lived.

At the plant, Goncharov seized a teacher's cane and scurried around a model of the station, explaining which bit blew up when and which bit was still working.

"That was very quick," said Leni Fischer of the Council of Europe human rights body on hearing that parts of the plant reopened a few months after the explosion.

Fischer spent the last day of a visit for talks on Ukraine's human rights record to visit Chernobyl ahead of a debate on its closure at the Council. She learned about decontamination work and a $780 million project to extract the fuel from the Tomb.

Donning white caps and coats and flimsy rubber soles, her group trekked through a labyrinth of corridors to the control room, where on April 26, 1986, its operators had seven seconds to work out what to do between the alarm and the explosion.

Western European officials in the delegation were given dosimeters to wear to check their exact radiation exposure later. "Oh, good," Fischer said, visibly re-lieved.

At the heart of the sprawling network of warehouse-shaped buildings, a few bored-looking workers manned the control room, occasionally rising to make adjustments when lights on the semicircular panel blinked and beeped.

It was hard not to wonder about the effect of a backlog of unpaid wages and the prospect of unemployment when the plant's single working reactor shuts.

"We sit here like we have for years, without prospects," Alexander, a bear of a man in his 30s or 40s, said angrily.

One of the lucky ones who is still alive after working at the plant on the day the reactor blew up, Alexander said he could not understand why Ukraine had agreed to shut down Chernobyl.

At the exit, visitors climbed on to a radiation-measuring contraption reminiscent of an outdated X-ray machine.

Clamping their hands on either side to see if they came up clean, some posed for photographs as they gripped the machine.

"For six months now the workers have not been paid on time or in full. But we understand there are people worse off," another green-blazered official said cheer-fully.

Chernobyl workers' wages reflect the sector's average salary in Ukraine of about $230 a month.

"If you can't do what you like, like what you do," read a postcard stuck on the wall in the scariest room of all, where a computer screen displayed a radiation picture of the contaminated exclusion zone complete with "hot spots."