20 Years Later, Chernobyl's Scars Remain

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukrainians tried to make sense Tuesday of the Chernobyl nuclear plant explosion through scientific conferences, humanitarian missions and in quiet recollection of an event that still scars this ex-Soviet republic 20 years later.

Ukrainian students try on gas masks as part of a safety drill in a school in Rudniya, just outside the Chernobyl contamination zone

The April 26, 1986, explosion and fire, to be commemorated in the capital with pealing bells and a minute's silence, became the world's worst nuclear accident as it spewed radioactive fallout for 10 days over 77,220 square miles of the then-Soviet Union and Europe.

"The whole country grieves, and the whole world joins us in this grief," said Lena Makarova, 27, one of many Ukrainians to visit the Chernobyl museum in Kiev on the eve of the anniversary.

President Viktor Yushchenko planned to attend a solemn, candlelit memorial service near a small church built to commemorate Chernobyl victims in Kiev, where bells were to toll 20 times starting at 1:23 a.m. Wednesday, marking the exact time when plant workers set off the alarm at Reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power station two decades ago.

The explosion tore off the plant's roof, releasing about 400 times more radiation than the U.S. atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima.

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

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, 29 rescuers, firefighters and plant workers died later from radiation poisoning and burns and another person died of an apparent heart attack.

Some 350,000 people were evacuated forever from their homes, leaving a whole city, Pripyat, and dozens of villages to decay and rot away.

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

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 than the U.N. agency predicted, accusing it of whitewashing the impact of the most serious nuclear accident in human history as a bid to restore trust in the safety of atomic power.

Radiation and health experts from international bodies including the International Atomic Energy Agency, the World Health Organization, the European Commission and the United Nations, gathered for the second day Tuesday in central Kiev to discuss what the world has learned from Chernobyl _ and what it can do to prevent a similar tragedy.

The head of the IAEA, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, stressed the importance of international cooperation on nuclear safety matters.

"In remembering the Chernobyl accident, we should renew our determination to ensure that such a tragedy will not happen again," IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei said in a statement, adding the explosions "made painfully clear that the safety risks associated with nuclear and radiological activities extend beyond national borders."

Another conference, hosted by Yushchenko's American-born wife, Kateryna, discussed the humanitarian challenges of the catastrophe. Senior officials from the International Red Cross, which provides free testing for thyroid cancer visited one of their mobile testing units outside of Kiev.

"Chernobyl is not just a Ukrainian problem, it's a disaster of international magnitude," said Markiyan Lubkivskiy, a presidential adviser on humanitarian issues.

European Green parties and environmentalists held their own conference in Kiev, raising concerns about the safety of nuclear energy and warning that the world should heed the lessons of Chernobyl and not build more nuclear power plants.

"There is no technology with such a high risk," said Ralf Fuchs of the Berlin-based Heinrich Boll Foundation, which helped sponsored the conference. "Instead of dreaming up new nuclear power plants, it would be much more profitable to invest money in energy saving and new energy efficiency."

The United Nations has said the aim now should be to reduce the feeling of malaise and doom that grips many in the affected region

"I don't want it to happen again," said Yevheniy Tyutyunnyk, a 19-year-old student as he looked through the often grim exhibits in the Kiev Chernobyl museum, whose hallways are lined with sign posts representing the radiation-dead villages around the region.

Source: AP

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