Commemoration ceremonies are being held in Ukraine to mark the 30th anniversary of the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl.
In the early hours of April 26, 1986, sirens were sounded at the same moment as the first explosion at the reactor.
The meltdown at the plant remains the worst nuclear disaster in history.
An uncontrolled reaction blew the roof off, spewing out a cloud of radioactive material which drifted across Ukraine’s borders, into Russia, Belarus and across a swathe of northern Europe.
The relatives of those who died attended candle-lit vigils at several churches, including in the capital Kiev and in Slavutych, a town built to re-house workers who lived near the nuclear plant.
Some former residents returned to the area, now derelict and overgrown, ahead of the anniversary. They lived in Pripyat, the town inhabited by Chernobyl workers which was abandoned in the wake of the accident.
Levels of radioactivity remain high in the surrounding area. A charity, Bridges to Belarus, is warning that a number of babies in a region close to Ukraine’s border are still being born with serious deformities, while an unusually high rate of people have rare forms of cancer.
Donors around the world pledged €87.5 million ($99 million) on April 25 towards a new underground nuclear waste facility in the region. Ukraine will need to commit a further €10 million in order to complete the new storage site.
Work began in 2010 on a 25,000-tonne, €2.1 billion sarcophagus to seal the uranium left in the damaged reactor, thought to be about 200 tonnes.
Experts fear that if parts of the aging reactor collapse, further radioactive material could be spewed into the atmosphere.
The number of people killed by the Chernobyl disaster remains disputed. A report in 2005 by the UN-backed Chernobyl Forum concluded that fewer than 50 people died as a result of exposure to radiation, most of them workers killed immediately after the disaster, but some survived until as late as 2004.
The forum estimated up to 9,000 people could eventually die from radiation exposure, although Greenpeace claims the figure could be as high as 93,000.
The world is marking today 26 years from the worst nuclear accident and Chernobyl survivors and victims’ families have held a midnight memorial.
Dozens of people died in the three months after the catastrophe but the subsequent health fallout of those who lived in the path of the leaked radiation is unknown.
On April 26, 1986, Chernobyl nuclear reactor four exploded sending a radioactive cloud over European Russia, Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, Britain and US East Coast.
Nearly 60% of the deadly fallout affected Belarus where an estimated 200,000 people were evacuated from areas contaminated as a result of what experts describe as the biggest disaster in the entire history of nuclear power generation, both in terms of human deaths and economic damage.
Fast forward to today, and even in the exclusion zone, plants have re-grown, animals are flourishing and Chernobyl has been opened to tourists.
But Chernobyl refuses to be relegated to the past. Indeed it may still be devastating the lives of millions who continue to live in the fallout zone.
Aside from the potential health hazards of living in an area contaminated with radiation, domino socioeconomic effects have caused multiple problems in these regions.
The world is marking today 26 years from the worst nuclear accident and Chernobyl survivors and victims’ families have held a midnight memorial
Chernobyl Children International, or CCI, works to help kids in the region whose lives have been impacted by a disaster that happened years before they were born. Many suffer from physical problems such as congenital heart defects. Many kids have chronic illnesses or disabilities, and many live full time in institutions.
For many severely disabled children there, the future is uncertain. CCI works to build community centers in affected areas, in the hopes that there will be some support system for them after they are too old to remain in institutions.
The impact of Chernobyl we see today is not just the exclusion zone around the destroyed reactor, but enormous radioactive contamination still observed in the now independent states of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine. There are vast territories in Russia’s Bryansk Region where the levels of background radiation are still too high for people to live safely in the area. In Germany, a hunting ban is still in effect in those regions where contamination due to radioactive fallout was recorded in 1986.
Today Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovich is to inaugurate the construction of a new 1.2 billion euro sarcophagus to hold the remains of the reactor which exploded.
It was a combination of flawed design and operator error which caused the blast and produced a radioactive cloud.
Chernobyl’s reactors were shut down and eventually decommissioned. Reactor four was initially encased in an unstable concrete shell. The more permanent casing should be completed by 2015.