Ukraine is preparing to mark 30 years since the Chernobyl disaster, the world’s worst nuclear accident whose death toll remains a mystery and which continues to jeopardise the local population’s health.
More than 200 tonnes of uranium remain inside the reactor that exploded three decades ago at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, raising fears there could be more radioactive leaks if the ageing concrete structure covering the stricken reactor collapses.
International donors are meeting on April 25 to discuss a funding plan for the installation of a more modern and safe sarcophagus that could last a century and keep generations from living in fear.
But despite the international community’s commitment to funding the project, it remains unclear who will pay for the new dome’s operations and upkeep after 2017, when it is scheduled to become operational.
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At 1:23 am on April 26, 1986, reactor number four of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, located about 100 kilometres north of Kiev, exploded during a safety test.
For 10 terrifying days, the nuclear fuel kept burning, spewing clouds of poisonous radiation that contaminated up to three-quarters of Europe, with Ukraine and neighbouring Belarus and Russia hit especially hard.
As the horror unfolded, the Soviet authorities said nothing publicly, in keeping with a tradition of preventing people from learning of tragedies that could tarnish the image of the Cold War-era superpower.
They evacuated the 48,000 inhabitants of the town of Pripyat, located just three kilometres from the plant, only the following afternoon.
The first alarm was raised on April 28 by Sweden, which detected an unexplained rise in its own radiation levels.
Only in his second year on the job, Communist Party Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev – winner of the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize for championing democratic and economic reforms – did not publicly admit the disaster until May 14.
With the scale of what had happened now out in the open, the authorities in 1986 relocated 116,000 people from the 30-kilometre exclusion zone that surrounds the now-dormant plant.
Subsequent years saw 230,000 others experience the same fate. Yet five million Ukrainians, Belarusians and Russians still live in areas where radiation levels are high.