April 26, 2006

Mourners lay flowers to mark Chernobyl anniversary

By Sergei Karazy

CHERNOBYL, Ukraine -- Mourners laid red carnations in the shadow of the ruined Chernobyl power station on Wednesday as they marked the 20th anniversary of the world's worst nuclear accident.

Hundreds filed past a memorial wall engraved with the names of the local fire crew. They were among the first to perish when Chernobyl's reactor No. 4 blew up on April 26, 1986, spewing radioactive dust across Europe.

One old woman in a headscarf made the sign of the cross as she stooped to lay a single carnation at the foot of the wall. In the former Soviet Union, the flowers signify grief.

"Today's ceremonies to mark the anniversary of the accident do not, unfortunately, mean we can say farewell to Chernobyl," parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn said at a special session of the chamber devoted to the anniversary.

"(It) will remain with the Ukrainian people for more than one generation to come."

Ukraine has been left to deal with a legacy of contamination, ill health among its people and a reactor that, though entombed in a concrete "sarcophagus," will remain radioactive for centuries.

Earlier, people at a memorial service in the nearby town of Slavutych fell silent at 1:23 a.m. Moscow time (2123 GMT) -- approximately the moment the reactor blew up.

Nuclear power, out of favor for years after the accident, is now making a comeback as governments like the United States and China seek cleaner and cheaper alternatives to oil and gas.

Soviet authorities took two days to inform the world and their own people about the accident. Firefighters and conscripts were sent in to extinguish the fire and clean up radioactive material, some equipped only with shovels.

Thousands of people suffered health problems from the radiation. The "sarcophagus" is leaking and needs to be replaced -- an undertaking likely to cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

In Moscow, 13 protesters from environmental group Greenpeace chained themselves to railings on Red Square. They wore T-shirts spelling "No to Chernobyls," reflecting green groups' concern about plans to build new reactors. Police arrested them.


The World Health Organization puts at 9,000 the number of people expected to die due to radiation exposure from Chernobyl, while Greenpeace predicts an eventual death toll of 93,000.

Ukraine has declared Wednesday a national day of "mourning and remembrance" Later, Ukraine's President Viktor Yushchenko is to visit the 30-km (19-mile) "exclusion zone" around Chernobyl.

Because of still-high radiation levels, the zone is deserted except for a few elderly residents who refused to leave. Trees now grow inside some apartment blocks.

Ukraine's Health Ministry said in a report released on Wednesday that 2.34 million Ukrainians in eight cities and more than 2,100 villages were suffering health problems linked to Chernobyl.

President Bush, in a statement, honored the "lives lost and communities hurt in the devastation."

Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said the anniversary was a reminder of the need for a common approach to nuclear safety, especially as many countries are planning to build new reactors.

Pope Benedict on Wednesday paid tribute to Chernobyl's victims and said world leaders should see to it that energy was used only for peaceful purposes and was environmentally safe.

"We still today pray for the victims of a calamity of such vast proportions and for those who are still bearing the scars on their bodies," he said.

Belarus's prosecutors summoned the ex-Soviet state's main opposition leader on Wednesday hours before a mass rally denouncing President Alexander Lukashenko to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster.

Belarus's opposition traditionally holds its biggest rally of the year on the Chernobyl anniversary.