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Ukraine remembers Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion 30 years later

Ukrainians mark the 30th anniversary of Chernobyl

Ukrainians light candles and lay flowers at the memorial for “liquidators” who died during the cleanup of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster Slavutich city, Ukraine.

(Sergey Dolzhenko / EPA)

Ivan Ivanovich and his wife knew something was wrong in April 1986 when officials began handing out free vodka, which was supposed to protect against radiation exposure.

Soon after, the couple were evacuated from their village near the Chernobyl nuclear plant.

Like many others, they were sent to Kiev, away from their home in Paryshiv, as a result of what turned out to be the world’s worst nuclear disaster. But they made their way back despite warnings about radioactive contamination, choosing the risk of illness over city life.

“We are not afraid,” Ivanovich, 80, said recently through an interpreter. “I don’t know if it’s contaminated around here and I don’t care or worry about it. There are worse things, like hunger and war.”

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On Tuesday, Ukraine remembered the explosion at Chernobyl and many marked the 30th anniversary in their own ways, some with flowers or candlelight vigils remembering those who died, and praise for those who fought to contain the disaster. Many also worried about what remains unanswered, including the extent of the contamination, and issues such as government scalebacks for Chernobyl survivors.

At 1:23:58 a.m., the exact time of the explosion, bells and sirens sounded throughout Ukraine, where President Petro Poroshenko headed a ceremony at Chernobyl. He praised the thousands of “liquidators” - military personnel and volunteers - who rushed to the power plant to fight the ensuing fire and prevent an even greater catastrophe.

“It’s with an everlasting pain in our hearts that we remember those who lost their lives to fight nuclear death,” Poroshenko said.

The Chernobyl disaster involved an experiment to test a cooling system at the energy plant’s Unit No. 4. In the early hours of April 26, 1986, an explosion caused by a buildup of steam blew the top off the reactor, sending radioactive material and dust from the fuel rods high into the air.

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The population of Ukraine and nearby Belarus, then part of the Soviet Union, were kept in the dark for a time about the deadly cloud heading their way. Schools and factories were told to continue with the traditional May Day parades and open-air parties, even as the clouds shifted and rained down on them.

Three decades later, there is still no agreement on the death toll from Chernobyl and its long-term consequences. The official figures are 41 deaths directly attributed to the catastrophe and between 4,000 and 9,000 premature deaths as a consequence.

At a Chernobyl conference at the Paris-based Institute of Radioprotection and Nuclear Safety in February, Director General Jacques Repussard said: “There are a few thousand deaths that might be attributed to radiation. We will never know the true figure.”

Greenpeace disagrees with the number of deaths and has accused officials and atomic energy bodies of “whitewash” and underestimating the consequences of the disaster. It says there will be 270,000 extra cases of cancer as a result and up to 100,000 will be fatal.

More than 6,313 square miles of land is classified as still unusable and more than 93,205 square miles of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine are designated as having suffered some radioactive contamination. Even biologists and environmentalists studying the “dead zone” cannot agree.

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Anders Pape Møller, who has been studying bird life in the “dead” zone,” says he has found high levels of cataracts, tumors around the eyes and albinism - white feathers - in various species. He is convinced the radiation is causing DNA changes in wildlife in the zone, adding: “We won’t see the long-term effect on humans yet. It will take more than 30 years, but we are definitely seeing the changes in mice and swallows.”

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Mike Wood of Salford University, who is also tracking wildlife in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone using cameras, is not so sure.

“There appears to be little impact in terms of overall species,” he said. “But it’s a pity 30 years on that we don’t have more definitive answers and there are still so many conflicting theories in the scientific community. The sad fact is we still don’t know.”

Wood blames a lack of coordination, the secrecy and lack of openness in the old Soviet Union and ongoing bureaucracy for turning Chernobyl into a “lost opportunity” for serious research on the consequences of radiation.

As engineers prepare to place a newly built steel sarcophagus -- 350 feet high and 500 feet long, it costs more than $2 billion -- over the Reactor 4 next year in an attempt to make it safe for another 100 years, there is disagreement.

Yuriy Kostenko, former Ukrainian minister for environmental and nuclear safety, who in 1995 agreed with the G7 economic group to the definitive closure of the Chernobyl nuclear plant, is concerned about what is still happening inside in the reactor.

“There are chemical reactions taking place underneath, reactions we are able to see, but the scientists cannot say what they are. They don’t know what is happening so they cannot predict what will happen,” Kostenko said. “If nuclear material is left in an uncontrolled situation like this, it’s a danger forever. That’s what we need to be discussing. Throwing a new sarcophagus over the reactor is not solving the problem.”

Willsher is a special correspondent.

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