On April 26, 2001, Ukrainians commemorated the darkest day in their history -- the 15th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Religious services were held to coincide with the time when a reactor of the Chernobyl nuclear plant exploded on April 26, 1986, claiming up to 30,000 lives. The full humanitarian impact of the disaster is yet to be known, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). "It could be years before many medical manifestations of the accident appear, which released 50 million units of radiation, contaminating an area of more than 160,000 square kilometres," said Kenzo Oshima, OCHA's chief.
The incident is the world's worst civilian nuclear disaster. The nuclear radiation has been blamed for a subsequent rise in the incidence of cancer and other diseases throughout Europe. About 1,800 cases of thyroid cancer have been reported among children who were exposed to the radiation. More than 70,000 Ukrainians were fully disabled following the incident. In all, seven million people in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine are estimated to suffer physical or psychological effects of radiation.
The power plant continues to be a threat although it has been closed down. Experts have warned that the crippled site will remain a radioactive time bomb for decades, with 160 tonnes of radioactive material locked inside a hastily erected structure that is already crumbling. The Ukraine agreed to shut down Chernobyl's last working reactor in December 2000 for safety reasons (see Down To Earth , Vol 9, No 16, January 15, 2001). United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan has called on the international community to help those still living with the after effects of the Chernobyl nuclear accident. "The Ukrainian nation till today pays a dear price for the accident," the European Commission said.