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Photo Gallery: Remembering the Victims of Chernobyl

Foto: SERGEI SUPINSKY/ AFP

Remembering the Nuclear Winter Ukraine Marks a Quarter Century Since Chernobyl

It has been 25 years since reactor 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded in the early morning hours of April 26, 1986. On Tuesday, Ukraine marked the disaster with religious services and memorial gatherings. A day earlier, thousands protested in Germany against nuclear energy.

In Kiev, the bells tolled. The solemn tones pierced the night at 1:23 a.m. in the Ukrainian capital marking exactly a quarter century since reactor No. 4 exploded at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, sending a radioactive cloud across much of northern Europe and rendering cities and towns near the site uninhabitable .

Several hundred people, many of them widows of workers who died in an attempt to contain the disaster, attended the ceremony. "The world had not known a catastrophe in peaceful times that could be compared to what happened in Chernobyl," said Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, who led the service, held near a monument to workers who died from radiation received as they battled the radioactive fire on that April day in 1986.

"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.

The church service in Kiev marked the beginning of a long day of remembrance on Tuesday -- one which will include anti-nuclear power protests in Russia and elsewhere as well as a visit to the exclusion zone surrounding the Chernobyl reactor by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Greenpeace also got into the act early Tuesday morning by projecting a skull and anti-nuclear slogans onto the side of the concrete containment shell which currently entombs the remains of reactor 4.

An Eye on Fukushima

In Germany, where an anti-nuclear debate has been raging in recent weeks, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets on Monday to demonstrate against atomic energy. Several thousand people gathered near several reactors in the country, demanding that nuclear power be phased out in the country. Organizers claim that over 120,000 people participated in the marches.

While the demonstrations on Monday, a holiday in Germany, were timed to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, much of the focus was also on Fukushima, Japan , where efforts at bringing the nuclear power plant there under control are ongoing. The government of Chancellor Angela Merkel accelerated efforts to phase out nuclear energy in the days following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami which crippled the Fukushima reactor.

Ukraine, meanwhile, renewed calls for international assistance in the construction of a new sarcophagus currently being built to replace the leaky structure now in place (see graphic at top left). A donor conference held last week  resulted in €550 million ($780 million) in pledges from the international community to build the new shell. But up to $300 million more is necessary .

"No nation can overcome the consequences of a catastrophe of such a scale by itself," Yanukovych said in a statement released on Tuesday.

More Radiation than Hiroshima

Estimates of the death toll from the Chernobyl disaster vary widely, from a low figure of around 10,000 to a calculation of more than 100,000. The explosion released some 400 times more radiation than did the atomic bomb dropped by the US on Hiroshima in the final days of World War II. Vast areas of land in both Ukraine and Belarus remain contaminated by radioactive elements such as cesium 137 and strontium 90, both of which cause cancer.

Towns and villages within a 30-kilometer radius of reactor 4 were evacuated in the days following the disaster and the exclusion zone remains largely empty of permanent residents. The city of Pripyat, once home to 50,000, is now an empty time-capsule of Soviet industrial architecture -- and, paradoxically, a nature reserve, with elk and wild boar meandering down streets once busy with traffic. Nearby villages have been swallowed up by the encroaching forest.

Radioactivity from the blast remains a problem as far away as southern Germany, where truffles, mushrooms and other vegetation still show elevated levels of radioactive particles. Wild boar, which feed on such delicacies, are likewise often radioactive .

On Monday, Medvedev hosted survivors of the Chernobyl clean-up effort at the Kremlin in Moscow. Many of those in attendance complained about recent cuts to the benefit packages of those who were sickened as a result of their post-disaster efforts.

Medvedev, for his part, focused on criticism at the time that Soviet officials had been slow to notify the world of the full extent of the Chernobyl catastrophe. "I think that our state must learn the lessons from what happened -- from the now distant Chernobyl incident in 1986 and the recent tragedies in Japan," he said. "Perhaps the most important lesson is the need to tell people the truth."

cgh -- with wire reports
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