Updated Wed. Apr. 26 2006 11:51 PM ET – CTV.ca News Staff
View of the gray cracked and crumbling sarcophagus covering Chernobyl nuclear power plant’s damaged Reactor No. 4. The reactor exploded on April 26, 1986, spewing radioactive clouds across much of Europe. (image: IAEA)
Bells tolled and sirens sounded in Ukraine Wednesday morning, marking the 20th anniversary of the world’s worst nuclear disaster in Chernobyl.
Dozens of mourners carrying candles and red carnations gathered about 15 kilometres from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, where an explosion on April 26, 1986 spewed radiation across many parts of Europe.
Ukrainians light candles to commemorate those who died after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster during a ceremony at the memorial to Chernobyl firefighters in the city of Slavutich. (AP / Oded Balilty)
The lethal radioactive blaze lasted for 10 days and affected the health of millions of people.
Parliament opened a special session Wednesday dedicated to the accident.
Deputy Emergency Minister Volodymyr Kholosha promised his department’s task “is above all directed at the people affected, their livelihood, their health, their security.”
About 4,000 people still work in the most highly contaminated zone, but for no more than two weeks at a time.
Ukrainian students try on gas masks as part of a safety drill in a school in Rudniya, just outside the Chernobyl contamination zone on Monday April 3, 2006. The world will mark the 20th anniversary today. (AP / Oded Balilty)
Debate still rages today as to how many people will die as a direct result of the radioactivity.
A recent report from the United Nations said only 65 people — 50 firefighters battling the fallout and 15 schoolchildren who developed thyroid cancer — were directly linked to the accident.
The UN predicted the death toll from cancers caused by radiation would climb to 9,000 in the years to come.
However, environmental groups including Greenpeace argue that number should be 10 times higher. They estimate 93,000 deaths can be directly linked to Chernobyl and accuse the UN of whitewashing the long-term effects of the accident.
Ukraine’s President Viktor Yushchenko lays flowers at a memorial monument of Chernobyl victims during a night ceremony on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the world’s worst nuclear disaster in the early hours of Wednesday n Kyiv, Ukraine. (AP / Efrem Lukatsky)
In the capital of Kyiv, hundreds visited memorials as bells tolled at exactly 1:23 a.m., the precise moment reactor No. 4 erupted 20 years ago.
“My friends were dying under my eyes,” said Konstantyn Sokolov, 68, a former Chernobyl worker whose voice was hoarse from throat and lip cancer.
“I try not to recollect my memories. They are very terrible,” Sokolov told The Associated Press.
Mike Ryndzak, who now lives in Ottawa, was 19 years old and in the military when he was assigned to the Chernobyl site a month after the explosion to help with the cleanup.
Ryndzak said he didn’t know exactly what radiation was, but knew it was bad.
“Radiation spread caused a panic among the population, mainly in my mind because of the unknown. I associated the word radiation with demon, something … you cannot see, you cannot touch, you cannot smell, but it yet it goes through across your body,” he told CTV’s Canada AM Wednesday.
“It was a difficult experience because I was preparing myself, basically, to die. I had no idea I would be alive 20 years later …. It’s a horrible experience thinking about death at the age of 19.”
Mykola Malyshev, 66, was working in the control room of Chernobyl’s reactor No. 1 at the time of the explosion. He said the lights flickered and the room shook. The workers were ordered to the destroyed reactor, but when they got there, their co-workers ordered them to flee and save themselves.
“They told us, ‘We are already dead. Go away,'” he said.
In Slavutych, a town built to house displaced Chernobyl workers, commemorations began an hour earlier to coincide with Moscow time, which was used in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic at the time of the accident.
Many believe the Chernobyl blast contributed to the Soviet Union’s eventual collapse.
The powerful blast, which followed a capacity test and occurred when the plant’s safety system was temporarily shut off, blew the reactor’s heavy steel and concrete lid and sent the radioactivity across a 77,220-square-mile radius of the then-Soviet Union and Europe.
Thousands have since been diagnosed with thyroid cancer, one of the only internationally accepted illnesses linked to Chernobyl.
Ryndzak said his health has been affected. He has had to have work done on more than a dozen teeth, and he says scars and bruises take a very long time to heal. Ryndzak said even mosquito bites leave a scar or blue spot for months.
About 350,000 people were evacuated from their homes following the explosion, never to return.
The nearby city of Pripyat — where many Chernobyl workers lived — along with dozens of villages, were left to decay. Experts say it will not be safe to live there again for centuries.
Five million people live in areas covered by the radioactive fallout, in Ukraine and neighbouring Belarus and Russia.
Valentyna Abramovych, 50, her husband and their infant son were forced to evacuate their home in Pripyat. They were shuffled around, first to a nearby village then to a relative’s house.
“Every day, I would watch television and expect to hear when we could come back,” she said.
“When they said we could never come back, I burst into tears … We feel like outcasts. No one needs us.”
Lena Makarova, 27, chose to commemorate the tragedy at the Chernobyl museum in Kyiv.
“The whole country grieves and the whole world joins us in this grief,” she said.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a statement Wednesday saying Canadians will continue to support those countries affected by the disaster.
Harper’s government Tuesday announced another $8 million in aid, bringing Canada’s total commitment for Chernobyl-related projects to $66.2 million.
“Canadians will not forget what happened 20 years ago on this day in Chernobyl, nor those whose health and livelihoods were so dramatically altered by the disaster,” the statement read.
“The international community must continue to work together to ensure that a tragedy such as this never happens again.”
With files from The Associated Press