25 years on, Ukraine still needs Chernobyl help
A general view of the sarcophagus over the destroyed 4th block of Chernobyl power plant. / Getty
KIEV, Ukraine - Ukraine's president on Tuesday used the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster to seek more help building a new shelter over the damaged reactor, saying no nation can battle such a massive tragedy alone.
The country must still raise some $300 million for the plant, which remains a no-go zone more than two decades after the worst nuclear accident in history released about 400 times more radiation than the U.S. atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima and spewed a nuclear cloud for thousands of miles across Europe.
"We have paid for the peace of the planet with the lives and health of thousands of compatriots," Viktor Yanukovych said.
"But not a single nation, even the most powerful, can overcome the consequences of a catastrophe of such a scale by itself," the leader said on his website.
The accident sickened hundreds of thousands and has left forests and farmland still contaminated, offering a warning to the Japanese of the potential long-term effects of their own nuclear disaster at Fukushima.
Ukrainians, Russians, and Belarusians the three nations most affected by Chernobyl began marking the anniversary at 1 a.m. Tuesday, around the time of the blast on April 26, 1986. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev arrived in Ukraine and was headed to Chernobyl to take part in joint memorial events there.
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, who also presides over a major Orthodox church in Ukraine, was to lead Easter prayers in a church in Chernobyl. In the early hours, Kirill led a memorial ceremony outside a monument to workers and firefighters who responded immediately after one of the reactors exploded most of whom died shortly after from acute radiation poisoning.
Black-clad Orthodox priests sang solemn hymns, Ukrainians lit thin wax candles and a bell tolled 25 times for the years that have passed.
"The world had not known a catastrophe in peaceful times that could be compared to what happened in Chernobyl," said Kirill, who was accompanied by Ukraine's Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and other officials.
"It's hard to say how this catastrophe would have ended if it hadn't been for the people, including those whose names we have just remembered in prayer," he said in an emotional tribute to those who perished.
The U.N.'s World Health Organization said at a conference in Kiev last week that among the 600,000 people most heavily exposed to the radiation, 4,000 more cancer deaths than average are expected to be eventually found.
Several hundred Ukrainians, mostly widows of plant workers and those sent in to deal with the disaster, came to Tuesday's service to pay their respects to their loved ones and colleagues. Teary-eyed, they lit candles, stood in silence and crossed themselves to the sound of Orthodox chants.
"Our lives turned around 360 degrees," said Larisa Demchenko, 64. She and her husband both worked at the plant, and he died nine years ago from cancer linked to Chernobyl radiation.
"It was a wonderful town, a wonderful job, wonderful people. It was our youth. Then it all collapsed," she said. "If only you knew how much our hearts ache for our children, how many sick grandchildren there are, how many couples without kids.
Russia, Ukraine and Belarus have cut the benefits packages for sickened cleanup workers in recent years and the memorial events were overshadowed by their complaints for more aid. Cleanup workers were to hold a rally in Kiev later in the day.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who was blacklisted by the European Union after a violent crackdown on opposition activists late last year, will not be taking part in memorial events in Ukraine.
His office said Lukashenko had no plans to come to Ukraine as he will be paying his respects to Chernobyl victims in Belarusian villages contaminated by the disaster. Some observers believe Ukraine is marking the Chernobyl anniversary without Lukashenko to please Brussels as it seeks EU membership.
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