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Ukraine Tries to Restore Contaminated Land

April 26, 2006 GMT

CHERNOBYL, Ukraine (AP) _ Ukrainians paid homage Wednesday to the victims of the Chernobyl disaster while still grappling for ways to live with the legacy of the world’s worst nuclear accident, restore contaminated land and give hope to survivors.

Arriving by helicopter at the shuttered Chernobyl nuclear power plant for commemorations of the catastrophe’s 20th anniversary, President Viktor Yushchenko said Chernobyl should be transformed into a beacon of hope, and he urged that nuclear energy not be feared.

``Chernobyl must not be a mourning place; it must become a place of hope,″ Yushchenko said after laying two red carnations beneath a monument to victims of the 1986 disaster.

That will be difficult in a nation where Chernobyl’s emotional wounds remain raw.

There is intense disagreement over the health, environmental and social tolls two decades after the electricity-generating plant’s Reactor No. 4 exploded during a pre-dawn test on April 26, 1986, spewing radioactive clouds over the western Soviet Union and northern Europe.

Bringing red carnations and flickering candles to Chernobyl memorials around the country, Ukrainians repeated a common mantra: It can’t be allowed to happen again.

``Let God not make our grandsons relive this,″ Valentyna Mashina, 55, said at a memorial in Chernobyl, a town 11 miles from the plant where 4,000 people still live _ but for no more than two weeks at a time, to work in the most highly contaminated zone.

The shattered reactor, which spewed out radioactivity for 10 days, contaminated 77,220 square miles and forced the Soviet government to permanently evacuate more than 300,000 people.

Thirty-one people died within the first two months from illnesses caused by radioactivity, but there is heated debate over the toll that will be taken over the years.

A report from the U.N. health agency estimated last week that about 9,300 people will die from cancers caused by Chernobyl’s radiation. Some groups, such as Greenpeace, insist the toll could be 10 times higher.

Some 5 million people live in areas where radioactive particles fell in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, and a U.N. report last year found that many suffer from a deep sense of gloom about the future.

Now, with experts saying radiation levels have fallen significantly in some areas, the United Nations is turning its attention to returning life to the region, saying it is time to overcome a culture of dependency and help transform the population from victims into survivors.

Yushchenko said his government supports this move and he has called for scientific studies to determine the best ways to proceed.

Among the ideas is using land to store Ukraine’s used nuclear fuel and creating a nature preserve that would take advantage of a wildlife resurgence in the zone that had to be abandoned by humans.

But before any rehabilitation can begin, the plant first must be secured, Yushchenko said. The concrete-and-steel sarcophagus hastily built to entomb Chernobyl is crumbling and dotted with holes. Birds have found their way inside, and radiation has escaped.

A $1.1 billion internationally funded project to replace the sarcophagus remains on the drawing board. Construction of a storage shelter for the used fuel from the other reactors has yet to be completed.

``The environment does cleanse itself,″ said Igor Linge, a Russian atomic energy expert at a conference in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital. ``But there are some areas, of course, that will remain contaminated for hundreds of years, maybe even thousands. It is a geological process and happens on a geological time scale.″

Critics contend the damage from Chernobyl is being played down to restore faith in atomic energy at a time when the world is hunting for alternatives to oil.

Yushchenko has expressed interest in nuclear energy as a way to reduce Ukraine’s dependence on its former master, Russia, for natural gas supplies.

``It sounds paradoxical, but nuclear energy is the world’s safest,″ Yushchenko said. He added, however, that it was too early to talk about new reactors in Ukraine.

Anna Golubovska-Onisimova, head of the Ukrainian environmental group MAMA-86, said at an environmental conference held to coincide with the anniversary that environmentalists would aggressively fight plans for new reactors.

``Ukraine doesn’t need nuclear reactors. Hasn’t Chernobyl taught us anything?″ she asked.

Environmentalists say Ukraine should focus instead on energy-saving technologies.

They argue the country’s vast farm lands should be used to produce biofuels _ something Yushchenko suggested could be done on land around Chernobyl. Ukraine could also use its wind resources, particularly in the Crimea, to harness natural energy, environmentalists say.

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Associated Press writers Anna Melnichuk and Mara D. Bellaby contributed to this report.