April 26, 2006

Flowers and Tears Mark Chernobyl Anniversary

By Sergei Karazy

CHERNOBYL, Ukraine -- Mourners laid red carnations -- symbols of grief -- 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.

Ukraine's President Victor Yushchenko said it was time to start healing the scars left by the disaster.

"After 20 years of pain and fear, this land must feel progress," he told mourners in Chernobyl -- epicenter of a still-contaminated 30-km (19-mile) "exclusion zone" that straddles parts of Ukraine and neighboring Belarus.

"The trance we were left in by Chernobyl is over. We are a strong and brave people and we are looking to the future."

His ex-Soviet state 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.

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.

But environmental groups have warned the lessons of Chernobyl should not be forgotten.

Authorities in what was then the Soviet Union 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 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.


Wednesday's ceremonies began in the small hours, as hundreds of people, each bearing a candle and some with carnations, filed slowly through the streets of Slavutych, the town built to house the Chernobyl plant's workers after the accident.

At 1:23 a.m. Moscow time (2123 GMT Tuesday) -- about the time of the explosion and ensuing fire -- a minute of silence was declared.

Later in Ukraine's capital Kiev, Lyudmila Snizhok dabbed her eyes with a tissue as she stood over a memorial to the victims.

Her husband Leonid, a paramedic, spent the first six months after the accident in the "exclusion zone," treating victims.

"He died three years ago .. from the effects of radiation," she said. "He left three children."

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

Ukraine's Health Ministry said in a report released on Wednesday that 2.34 million Ukrainians were suffering health problems linked to Chernobyl.

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

Pope Benedict 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 country's main opposition leader on Wednesday hours before a rally denouncing President Alexander Lukashenko. Belarus's opposition traditionally holds its biggest rally of the year on the Chernobyl anniversary.

(Additional reporting by Mikhail Yelchev in Kiev)