Ukraine held memorial services on Tuesday to mark the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which permanently poisoned swathes of eastern Europe and highlighted the shortcomings of the secretive Soviet system.
In the early hours of April 26, 1986, a botched test at the nuclear plant in then-Soviet Ukraine triggered a meltdown that spewed deadly clouds of atomic material into the atmosphere, forcing tens of thousands of people from their homes.
Relatives of those who died as a result of the world’s worst nuclear accident attended a candle-lit vigil in a Kiev church, built in their memory.
“We did not think that this accident would change all our lives, dividing them into ‘before the war’ and ‘after the war’ as we called it. It was silent nuclear war for us,” said Lyudmila Kamkina, a former worker at the plant.
Others gathered for a service in Slavutych, a town 50 km (30 miles) from Chernobyl that was established to house many of those who had to leave their homes for ever.
More than half a million civilian and military personnel were drafted in from across the former Soviet Union as so-called liquidators to clean-up and contain the nuclear fallout, according to the World Health Organization.
Thirty-one plant workers and firemen died in the immediate aftermath of the accident, most from acute radiation sickness.
Over the past three decades, thousands more have succumbed to radiation-related illnesses such as cancer, although the total death toll and long-term health effects remain a subject of intense debate.
Nikolay Chernyavskiy, 65, who worked at Chernobyl and later volunteered as a liquidator, recalls climbing to the roof of his apartment block in the nearby town of Prypyat to get a look at the plant after the accident.
“My son said ‘Papa, Papa, I want to look too’. He’s got to wear glasses now and I feel like it’s my fault for letting him look,” Chernyavskiy said.
The anniversary has garnered extra attention due to the imminent completion of a giant 1.5 billion euros ($1.7 billion) steel-clad arch that will enclose the stricken reactor site and prevent further leaks for the next 100 years.
The project was funded with donations from more than 40 governments. Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman said lessons learned from Chernobyl should be heeded all over the world.
Even with the new structure, the surrounding exclusion zone – 2,600 square km (1,000 square miles) of forest and marshland on the border of Ukraine and Belarus – will remain uninhabitable and closed to unsanctioned visitors.
The disaster and the government’s reaction highlighted the flaws of the Soviet system with its unaccountable bureaucrats and entrenched culture of secrecy. For example, the evacuation order only came 36 hours after the accident.
Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has said he considers Chernobyl one of the main nails in the coffin of the Soviet Union, which eventually collapsed in 1991.
Named after the nearby Pripyat River, Pripyat was founded on 4 February 1970, the ninth nuclear city in the Soviet Union, to serve the nearby Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. It was officially proclaimed a city in 1979, and had grown to a population of 49,360 by the time it was evacuated, on the afternoon of April 27, 1986, the day after the Chernobyl disaster.
A natural concern is whether it is safe to visit Pripyat and the surroundings. The Zone of Alienation is considered relatively safe to visit, and several Ukrainian companies offer guided tours around the area. Nowadays, radiation levels have dropped considerably, compared to the fatal levels of April 1986, due to the decay of the short-lived isotopes released during the accident. In most places within the city, the level of radiation does not exceed an equivalent dose of 1 μSv (one microsievert*) per hour.
*One sievert carries with it a 5.5% chance of eventually developing cancer. In comparison, one set of dental x-rays is 5-10 μSv.