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Europe

Haunting Vigils Mark 20 Years Since Chernobyl Disaster

Moving night-time vigils marked the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, the world's worst nuclear accident that rocked the globe, ravaged a corner of Eastern Europe and affects millions of people to this day.

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Ukrainians participate in a ceremony to remember Chernobly victims

Clutching candles and carnations, hundreds of people silently

poured into the central square of the Ukrainian town of Slavutich, built 50 kilometers (31 miles) to the east of the defunct nuclear power station to house its staff and others evacuated following the accident.

A shrieking siren pierced the silence around the time that two explosions ripped through reactor number four at the Soviet-designed plant on April 26, 1986, releasing a huge radioactive cloud into the air.

"This is a night of remembrance and tragedy," said Borys Ulavin, a 59-year-old who participated in the clean-up of the disaster.

Painful memories

Somber-faced, many with tears in their eyes, the human stream made its way toward a monument honoring the 30 people who died in the first year after the accident that became a grim symbol of the hazards of atomic energy.

"I knew all of these people," Mykola Ryabushkin said, pointing to the portraits hanging on the monument. The 59-year-old was an operator at the station and was working the night of the explosion that bathed the station in an otherworldly bluish light.

"I look at them and I want to ask them for forgiveness," he said, tears rolling down his cheeks. "Maybe we're all to blame for letting this accident happen."

Gedenken an Tschernobyl

Yushchenko lays flowers at a memorial to Chernobyl victims

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko led another 300 people who attended a memorial service at a church in eastern Kiev that features memorial plaques of many of those who died fighting the immediate aftermath of the accident.

Impact felt across the planet

The cloud released by the Chernobyl explosion settled mostly in Ukraine and neighboring Belarus to the north, but parts of it drifted across Russia and a large swathe of Europe, and its effects were felt from Scandinavia to Greece.

The impact was made worse by the fact that the then Soviet authorities concealed the extent of what had happened for several days and did not begin to evacuate people from the area until more than a day and half later.

"The explosion affected half of the planet, but Belarus and Ukraine suffered worst of all," Terry Davis, secretary general of the Council of Europe, said in a statement on Tuesday. "For these countries, Chernobyl is not an historic event, it is a problem of today and of tomorrow," Davis said.

At an eerie ceremony in front of the concrete sarcophagus covering the destroyed reactor, with a dozen journalists their only audience, a French theater troupe late Tuesday recounted stories of a handful of ordinary people who found their lives torn apart by the disaster.

"We are playing for the dead," said Bruno Boussagol, the producer and artistic director of the Brut de Beton troupe.

Death toll remains disputed

Tschernobyl

An aerial view of the Chernobyl plant, a few days after the accident

Some five million people are believed to have been affected by the disaster in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, all of which still have regions where the levels of dangerous cesium-137 and strontium-90 radioisotopes are much higher than accepted norms.

Two decades on, millions of acres (hectares) of agricultural and forest land remain contaminated from the accident and its death toll is hotly debated.

Agencies of the United Nations, backed by the governments of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, estimate that between 4,000 and 9,000 people could be expected to die overall as a direct consequence of the accident. Environmental groups put the figure at 100,000 and higher.

The UN has estimated that the disaster will end up costing hundreds of billions of dollars.

Chernobyl plant still raises concerns

The Chernobyl plant was eventually closed for good in December 2000 but will continue to be a concern for years to come.

The concrete sarcophagus that was hastily constructed over its destroyed reactor immediately following the accident is showing signs of wear and more than 20 countries have chipped in nearly a billion dollars for the construction of a 20,000-ton steel case to take its place.

Construction of the new containment unit is expected to begin later this year and Ukraine hopes to complete it by 2010.

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