Ukraine marks 20th anniversary of Chernobyl

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Ukrainians commemorated the 20th anniversary of the world's worst nuclear accident at the Chernobyl power plant yesterday. Bells tolled in the early morning to mark the moment on 26 April 1986 when a reactor exploded after a reckless safety experiment went terribly wrong.

There were church services and a minute's silence across the country to remember the victims of the explosion. Ukraine's President, Viktor Yushchenko, laid flowers at a monument at Chernobyl to those who perished. "Chernobyl must not be a mourning place, it must become a place of hope," Mr Yushchenko said.

After Reactor No 4 exploded it burnt for days, spewing tons of radioactive material into the atmosphere. Ukraine and neighbouring Belarus, as well as Russia, were worst affected, but winds carried nuclear pollution all over Europe, including to Britain.

Thousands of army conscripts, firemen, scientists, helicopter pilots and other personnel were exposed to high radiation doses as they were drafted in to stop the blaze and construct a "sarcophagus" over the remains of the stricken reactor to contain an estimated 200 tons of radioactive debris.

The International Atomic Energy Authority says Chernobyl will eventually be the cause of 9,000 deaths. Greenpeace and other organisations saythat 200,000 people in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia could have died already of illnesses related to the accident, and that another 93,000 people with illnesses attributed to the catastrophe could add to the final death toll.

In Kiev and Slavutych, a town built to house displaced Chernobyl workers, hundreds of people carrying red carnations and flickering candles filed by memorials, as bells tolled and sirens sounded to mark the exact time of the explosion: 1.23am.

But in Minsk, the Belarus capital, police fenced off a central square, preventing opposition protesters from gathering for a planned rally to mark the anniversary.

In Moscow's Red Square, 13 Greenpeace activists wearing T-shirts that collectively said "No more Chernobyls" chained themselves to a fence surrounding St Basil's Cathedral.

International donors rallied to help deal with the consequences of the calamity, with the European Union ploughing in huge funds administered by the London-based European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) to stabilise the sarcophagus, which had been in danger of collapsing. Yesterday donor representatives, who gathered at the commemorations, had hoped to announce the go-ahead for a scheme to make the sarcophagus safe by enclosing it in a 350ft-high dome-like structure referred to as "the ark".

But the £280m ark and a project to store nuclear waste from Chernobyl's three undamaged reactors, which ceased operations in 2000 but have not been decommissioned, have stalled amid technical difficulties, misunderstandings, political intrigue and a whiff of corruption.

Apart from Chernobyl, Ukraine has four other power stations, including Europe's largest. The European Commission has financed projects to modernise the plants and to foster a safety culture.

Ukraine is dependent for much of its energy needs, especially gas, on Russia, which this year quadrupled prices as punishment for the country straying away from Moscow's orbit. Developing its nuclear industry has become a priority and Ukraine wants to build up to 13 more reactors.