KYIV, Ukraine (AP) - Hundreds of mourners laid flowers and lit candles early Tuesday before a monument in Ukraine's capital to mark the 19th anniversary of the Chornobyl nuclear disaster, which spewed radiation over much of northern Europe and claimed thousands of lives.
|Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, left, and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, right, take part in a ceremony in Kyiv, Ukraine, Tuesday commemorating the 19th anniversary of the Chornobyl nuclear disaster. (AP Photo/Sergei Chuzavkov)|
As the country slept on April 26, 1986, a reactor at the nuclear power station exploded and caught fire during a test.
An area almost twice the size of New Brunswick was contaminated by the accident, forcing the resettlement of hundreds of thousands of people and ruining some of Europe's most fertile farmland.
At first, the leaders of the then-Soviet Union hushed up the accident. People living next to the plant were not evacuated for more than 24 hours after the No. 4 reactor blew up. Only after scientists in Sweden detected radioactivity did the Kremlin break its silence on April 28, acknowledging an accident had occurred.
"The Chornobyl plant that was regarded as Ukraine's pride has become a symbol of the biggest ever man-made disaster," the plant's management said Tuesday, an anniversary now observed worldwide as a memorial to victims of radiation catastrophes.
Ukraine has registered 4,400 deaths. In all, seven million people in the former Soviet republics of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine are believed to have suffered health problems. Many were the firefighters, cleanup workers, soldiers and scientists sent in to help deal with the accident.
"They protected us like heroes of war," said Ganna Romanova, 75. "We must not forget them and we must tell our children about their feat."
In Kyiv, about 130 kilometres south of the Chornobyl plant, hundreds of Ukrainians filled a small chapel dedicated to the disaster's victims as bells tolled 19 times at 1:23 a.m., the exact time of the explosion.
Many victims have complained that their governments are doing too little to help them. In the Russian city of Novovoronezh, some 500 kilometres south of Moscow, a group of Chornobyl victims launched a new hunger strike, saying recent social reforms stripped them of some necessary benefits, Russia's NTV reported. Specialists from Novovoronezh's nuclear power plant were dispatched to Chornobyl to help after the accident.
The most frequent Chornobyl-related diseases include thyroid, blood and other cancers.
Yuriy Andreev, head of the Chornobyl Union, an action group that represents victims, said the Ukrainian government has cut funding for victims every year.
"In 1992, we were receiving 12 per cent of (national) budget expenses, in 2000 - 3.3 per cent and in 2005 only 2.3 per cent," he said.
Similar complaints have been made in Belarus, whose authoritarian leader has even encouraged farming to resume in areas near contamination zones.
Ukraine shut down Chornobyl's last working reactor in December 2000, but the decommissioning work continues. A Russian-Ukrainian consortium has recently started reinforcing the crumbling concrete-steel sarcophagus hastily constructed over the damaged reactor.
Meanwhile, the cost of building a new shelter has increased by hundreds of millions of dollars.
Cash shortages continue to raise concern. Last week, the state-run company responsible for maintaining the site and decommissioning the plant warned it is facing a dangerous cutoff of energy supplies due to $6 million US in unpaid bills for gas, electricity and overdue wages.
Also Tuesday, Deputy Prime Minister Mykola Tomenko urged investigators to scrutinize "enormously big sums" paid to consultants and experts for environmental safety work at Chornobyl. Prosecutors have already launched on criminal case against an unidentified person for alleged misappropriation of funds.