Ukraine Remembers Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster

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Renee Montagne speaks with reporter Alex Kleimenov in Kiev, Ukraine, about ceremonies taking place to mark 20 years since the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Twenty years ago today, the world suffered its worst nuclear accident. An explosion in the middle of the night at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine tore off the plant's roof and sent radiation over much of Europe. Today, mourners with candles marked the anniversary, and at 1:23 A.M., the exact time of the explosion, bells tolled in Kiev, Ukraine's capital.

(Soundbite of bells ringing)

MONTAGNE: Reporter, Alex Kleimenov is in Kiev, which is just 60 miles from Chernobyl; and tell us about the commemorations there this morning.

ALEX KLEIMENOV reporting:

Well, there are several ceremonies taking place today to commemorate the 20th anniversary. One took place in Kiev around a special hill that was built several years ago to commemorate the disaster. And people came to that hill, which has a belfry on top of it; they came holding candles and flowers, and many of them had tears in their eyes because they either knew somebody who died in the accident, or they themselves worked at the plant, or they lived just in the town nearby.

Ukraine's president, Victor Yushchenko, was joined by Ukraine's parliament speaker and the prime minister and they all came to the ceremony and drank a shot of Vodka in the memory of those who died, and they said several words to people who gathered there.

MONTAGNE: And you, I gather, were in Kiev as a child when this explosion happened.

KLEIMENOV: That's right. I was 14 when it all happened. Well, actually, I don't remember anything, because nobody told us anything on that day. But then rumors started coming in. So I remember those rumors. And then, only days later, did we find out from official sources that there was an accident at the power plant, but, of course, nobody said how serious it was and how dangerous it was. So kids were still going to school. There was the first May parade on Kiev's central square when thousands of people came out on the streets just to march there.

MONTAGNE: And that was the May Day Parade. Was there any point at which people started getting scared?

KLEIMENOV: Well, people started getting scared from the very beginning, because in the Soviet tradition, you only relied on rumors, because you would never believe the television or newspapers because they would only tell you the official point of view, which, very often, would turn out to be a lie. So, of course, people started gathering water because they thought that the water would get contaminated. They wouldn't open windows to let any fresh air and any dust inside the apartments. And then they would try to leave the city and go wherever they could if they had any relatives in some other places or at least they would try to send their kids away.

MONTAGNE: Twenty years later, how has what happened at Chernobyl affected people there in Ukraine?

KLEIMENOV: Well, of course, every Ukrainian remembers about Chernobyl, and Chernobyl is in the back of everyone's mind in some way; but this is not something they live by. But every time someone gets sick, especially if someone gets cancer, people think that it's connected to Chernobyl. And, frankly, no one has been able to prove whether it's connected or not. Of course, it has changed people's psychology. People believe that something is wrong around them, especially people who live very close to Chernobyl, outside the exclusion zone or maybe inside the zone, itself. They just have the fear that the air is still not good to breathe, and the roads are dirty, and they think they feed on radioactive food.

MONTAGNE: Just finally yesterday Ukraine hosted conferences to examine what the world learned from Chernobyl. What are those lessons?

KLEIMENOV: Well, it seems like what the world really learned from Chernobyl was that no information should be withheld from people. People should be told the truth, because otherwise they start panicking, and nobody can take the right decision. If you think that Ukraine would somehow decide to live without nuclear energy in the future, well, that's actually wrong, because it looks like there will be more nuclear reactors built in Ukraine in the future.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for speaking with us.

KLEIMENOV: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Reporter Alex Kleimenov is in Kiev.

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