Ukraine paid homage early Saturday to victims of the Chernobyl catastrophe 23 years after the worst nuclear accident in history.
“Today we remember with profound sadness those heroes who fought against the nuclear storm and sacrificed themselves for us and our children,” President Viktor Yushchenko said in an address published by his press service.
Some 100 Ukrainians, including Yushchenko and other top officials, laid wreaths overnight before the monument to Chernobyl’s victims in Kiev and lighted candles during a religious service dedicated to the tragedy, an AFP photographer reported.
The “liquidators” -- men who took part in cleaning the site after the catastrophe -- in their turn wound a long fir-tree wreath around the monument, many unable to keep back tears.
In Slavutich, a small town 50 kilometers (30 miles) away from the accident’s site where many of the power station’s personnel used to live, the night vigil gathered many hundreds who brought flowers and candles to the Chernobyl victims’
monument, according to another AFP photographer.
The disaster occurred on April 26, 1986 at 1:23 a.m., when one of the reactors exploded -- contaminating the Soviet states of Ukraine, Russia and Belarus with the fallout also spreading to other parts of Europe.
Over 25,000 people known as “liquidators” -- most of them Ukrainians, Russians and Belarussians -- died getting the accident under control and constructing a concrete shield over the wreckage, according to Ukrainian official figures.
A United Nations toll published in September 2005 set the number of victims at just 4,000, a figure challenged by non-governmental organisations.
In Ukraine alone, 2.3 million people are designated officially as “having suffered from the catastrophe.”
Some 4,400 Ukrainians, children or adolescents at the time of the accident, have undergone operations for thyroid cancer, the most common consequence of radiation, the health ministry says.
Chernobyl nuclear power station was finally closed in 2000 after one reactor had continued producing electricity.
But the dead power station remains a threat because the concrete cover laid over 200 tonnes of magma, consisting of radioactive fuel, is cracking.
A new steel sarcophagus is due to cover the seal hurriedly flung over the reactor in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.
Internationally funded construction of the new steel cover is due to be launched this year or early next year and completed by 2012 by the Novarka consortium including France’s Bouygues and Vinci companies.