KIEV • Ukraine has held memorial services 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 to leave their homes.
Relatives of those who died as a result of the world's worst nuclear accident attended a candle-lit vigil yesterday 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 call it," said former plant worker Lyudmila Kamkina.
Others gathered for a service in Slavutych, a town 50km from Chernobyl that was established to house many of those who had to leave their homes forever.
More than half a million civilian and military personnel were drafted in from across the former Soviet Union to clean up and contain the nuclear fallout, according to the World Health Organisation.
Thirty-one plant workers and firemen died in the immediate aftermath of the accident, mostly 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.
Mr Nikolay Chernyavskiy, 65, who worked at Chernobyl, recalled climbing to the roof of his apartment block in the nearby town of Prypyat to get a look 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."
The anniversary has garnered extra attention due to the imminent completion of a giant €1.5 billion (S$2.3 billion) steel-clad arch that will enclose the stricken reactor site and prevent further leaks for 100 years.
The project was funded by more than 40 governments.
Global donors have also pledged an additional €87.5 million towards the construction of a new spent nuclear waste storage facility.
Ukraine must find an additional €15 million for the underground site in order to start safely storing the hazardous material by the end of the year.
Chernobyl's exclusion zone - 2,600 sq km of forest and marshland on the Ukraine-Belarus border - remains uninhabitable and closed to unsanctioned visitors.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE