Prayers offered on 15th anniversary of Chernobyl disaster

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The Independent Online

Fifteen years after the world's worst nuclear disaster, people across much of the former Soviet Union lit candles and offered prayers for those killed and sickened by the explosion at Ukraine's Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

Fifteen years after the world's worst nuclear disaster, people across much of the former Soviet Union lit candles and offered prayers for those killed and sickened by the explosion at Ukraine's Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

The April 26, 1986 explosion and fire sent a radioactive cloud over much of Europe and contaminated large areas in then–Soviet Ukraine, Russia and Belarus.

The Ukrainian government says more than 4,000 of those who took part in the hasty and poorly organised Soviet cleanup effort have died, and that more than 70,000 Ukrainians were fully disabled by the disaster.

In all, seven million people in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine are estimated to suffer physical or psychological effects of radiation related to the Chernobyl catastrophe.

Hundreds of people attended an overnight memorial service at a small Kiev chapel that was built to commemorate the disaster. They held burning candles as priests read out prayers in memory of the dead.

A bell rang shortly after 1am (2000 GMT yesterday), exactly the same time as the reactor exploded. Some in the crowd broke into tears.

One woman described how the building in which she worked at Chernobyl grew dark and shook. From a window, she saw "a glow, like haze in the summer" over the reactor.

A similar service was held in Slavytuch, a town of Chernobyl workers close to the plant. President Leonid Kuchma was due to visit the town and plant later in the day.

In a statement marking the anniversary, Kuchma urged the world not to forget Chernobyl and to help Ukraine deal with its consequences.

"Chernobyl is a common tragedy, a common pain of our planet, and its echo must not fall silent in our hearts," Kuchma said.

At the United Nations, Secretary General Kofi Annan appealed for people to remember the needs of those who are still suffering from the effects of Chernobyl.

"Together, we must extend a helping hand to our fellow human beings, and show that we are not indifferent to their plight," Annan said in a statement released Wednesday.

In Moscow, a service for victims of Chernobyl was to take place at the Danilov Monastery, commemorating Ukrainians, Belarusians and Russians affected by the disaster. Similar ceremonies were scheduled in Belarus.

Boris Chekalin, the head of the radiation service at Russia's Kursk atomic power plant, took part in the Chernobyl cleanup. He told Russian state television about the first days of the operation.

"When I arrived at Chernobyl, I saw a large black fire with clouds, an impression that will stay with me my whole life," he said.

Chekalin said he never takes off his hat, even on overcast days, because he has to avoid the most minor sun rays to prevent irritating burns on his face and arms – a constant reminder of his radiation exposure during three days at Chernobyl.

Following the 1986 explosion, other reactors at the plant continued operating until it was halted for good in December under intense international pressure.

At the plant itself, workers remain busy. They monitor the now–idle reactors and are building a heating plant and facilities for nuclear waste disposal and reprocessing.

They are also involved in a US$758 million, internationally funded project to make the leaky concrete and steel sarcophagus over the ruined reactor environmentally safe.

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