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Ukrainians Mark 20 Years Since Chernobyl

Associated Press | April 26, 2006

CHERNOBYL, Ukraine (AP) - Bells tolled across Ukraine and mourners carried red carnations and flickering candles to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear accident Wednesday, a disaster that continues to scar this ex-Soviet republic.

Dozens gathered in the town of Chernobyl, about 10 miles from the plant, for reunions with old friends, and parliament opened a special session dedicated to the accident. Deputy Emergency Minister Volodymyr Kholosha promised that his department's task ``is above all directed at the people affected, their livelihood, their health, their security.''

``Let God not allow this to be repeated, let God not make our grandsons relive this,'' said Valentyna Mashina, 55, standing near a monument to the victims in Chernobyl, where 4,000 people still work in the most highly contaminated zone - but for no more than two weeks at a time.

The April 26, 1986, pre-dawn explosion and fire became the world's worst nuclear accident, spewing radiation across vast stretches of Europe. It cast a radioactive shadow over the health of millions of people; many believe it contributed to the Soviet Union's eventual collapse.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko flew over the crumbling concrete-and-steel shell that covers the damaged reactor before a visit to a nearby memorial, where hundreds of current and former plant workers listened to a military band and exchanged greetings with people displaced by the disaster.

``This is our victory over radiation,'' said Gunar Savirzyanovych, 75, who was one of the so-called liquidators who helped contain the fire. ``We managed to live. We saved many people.''

In Kiev, hundreds carrying red carnations and flickering candles filed by memorials early Wednesday, as bells tolled and sirens sounded at 1:23 a.m. - the exact time that Reactor No. 4 exploded at the power station.

``My friends were dying under my eyes,'' said Konstantyn Sokolov, 68, a former Chernobyl worker whose voice was hoarse from throat and lip cancer. ``I try not to recollect my memories. They are very terrible.''

Mykola Malyshev, 66, was working in the control room of Chernobyl's Reactor No. 1 at the time of the explosion. He said the lights flickered and the room shook. The workers were ordered to the destroyed reactor, but when they got there, their co-workers ordered them to flee and save themselves. ``They told us, 'We are already dead. Go away,''' Malyshev recalled at the Kiev ceremony.

In Slavutych, a town built to house displaced Chernobyl workers, commemorations began an hour earlier to coincide with Moscow time, which was used in the Soviet era. Residents laid flowers and placed candles at a monument as sirens blared.

The explosion tore off the plant's roof, spewing radioactive fallout for 10 days over 77,220 square miles of the then-Soviet Union and Europe.

At least 31 people died as a direct result of trying to keep the fire from spreading to the plant's three other operating reactors. One plant worker was killed instantly and his body has never been recovered. Twenty-nine rescuers, firefighters and plant workers died later from radiation poisoning and burns, and another person died of an apparent heart attack

Death tolls connected to the blast remain hotly debated, as do the long-term health effects.

Thousands have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer, one of the only internationally accepted illnesses linked to Chernobyl, and the U.N. health agency said about 9,300 people were likely to die of cancers caused by radiation.

Some groups, however, including Greenpeace, have warned that death tolls could be 10 times higher and accused the U.N. of whitewashing the long-term effects of the accident in order to restore trust in the safety of atomic power.

About 350,000 people were evacuated from their homes following the explosion, never to return. A whole city, Pripyat, and dozens of villages were left to decay, and experts say some may not be habitable again for centuries, perhaps even longer.

In Chernobyl itself, visitors to the area around the power plant do not need protective clothing if they do not stay too long.

The shelter, or ``sarcophagus,'' that was hastily erected over Reactor No. 4 is now crumbling, and a $1.2 billion project to replace it remains on the drawing board. Yushchenko has said he expects work to begin this year, and be completed around 2010.

The new shelter is designed to last for 100 years, although officials note that some of the radioactive dust inside the plant contains particles whose radioactivity could last tens of thousands of years.

Some 5 million people live in areas covered by the radioactive fallout, in Ukraine, neighboring Belarus and Russia.

Valentyna Abramovych, now 50, her husband and their infant son were forced to evacuate their home in the Chernobyl workers' city of Pripyat, leaving behind all their belongings. They were shuffled around, first to a nearby village then to a relative's house.

``Every day, I would watch television and expect to hear when we could come back,'' she said. ``When they said we could never come back, I burst into tears ... We feel like outcasts. No one needs us.''

Ukraine hosted competing scientific conferences Tuesday as this nation of 47 million and the international community tried to make sense of the catastrophe.

Radiation and health experts from international bodies such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, the World Health Organization, the European Commission and the United Nations discussed what the world has learned from Chernobyl - and what it can do better to prevent a similar tragedy.

Some Ukrainians sought out more private places to remember.

``The whole country grieves and the whole world joins us in this grief,'' Lena Makarova, 27, said as she visited the Chernobyl museum in Kiev.



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