MOSCOW (AP) — Ex-Soviet governments are failing to protect their people from the deadly legacy of the Chernobyl disaster, former cleanup workers and environmental groups charged Monday on the eve of ceremonies commemorating the 25th anniversary of the world's worst nuclear accident.
Russia, Ukraine and Belarus have cut the benefits packages for sickened cleanup workers in recent years, and many workers complained directly to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev as he handed them awards for their work at a ceremony in Moscow.
Officials in Bryansk, the Russian region most contaminated by the disaster, have failed to make necessary repairs at the local cancer hospital, worker Leonid Kletsov told the president.
"It’s the only place of rest for us," he said. "Officials promised to renovate it but these promises are still promises."
The blast on April 26, 1986, spewed a cloud of radioactive fallout over much of Europe and forced hundreds of thousands from their homes in the most heavily hit areas in Ukraine, Belarus and western Russia.
The disaster did not become public knowledge for several days, because Soviet officials released no information until 72 hours after the accident.
The explosion released about 400 times more radiation than the U.S. atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima. Hundreds of thousands were sickened and once-pristine forests and farmland remain contaminated.
The U.N.’s World Health Organization said at a Kiev conference last week that among the 600,000 people most heavily exposed to radiation, 4,000 more cancer deaths than average are expected to be eventually found.
Chernobyl has come into renewed focus since an earthquake and tsunami triggered a nuclear disaster in Japan last month.
For many, the experiences of the people of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine present vivid examples of long-term government mishandling of nuclear catastrophe.
The government of Belarus says natural disintegration of radiactive materials such as strontium and cesium has allowed the replanting of nearly 40,000 acres (16,000 hectares) of formerly contaminated fields.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko toured some of those farms on Monday, declaring that "We’ve saved these lands."
Environmentalist say the fields remain unsafe and the products grown there pose a direct threat to human health.
"Authorities are covering up the facts. Contaminated products get straight to the dinner tables of Belarusians," said Irina Sukhiy, head of the environmental group Ekodom.
"There are no clean territories — radiation have spread across the country."
Vladimir Volodin, a Green Party activist, accused the Belarusian authorities of classifying the statistics of diseases in contaminated areas.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill planned to commemorate the victims of the nuclear accident with prayers and candle-lighting in Kiev Monday night before traveling to the Chernobyl station on Tuesday.
Medvedev will also be be visiting Chernobyl on Tuesday.
A 19-mile (30-kilometer) area around the plant has been uninhabited except for occasional plant workers, and several hundred local people who returned to their homes despite official warnings.
Soviet authorities initially offered a generous package of benefits to Chernobyl cleanup workers. But over time the benefits have been cut back.
About 2,000 veterans of the Chernobyl clean up rallied in Kiev earlier this month to protest cuts in their benefits and pensions after Ukraine’s Yanukovich said fulfilling the past promises to Chernobyl workers was "beyond the government’s strength" amid the financial downturn.
Chernobyl veterans in Belarus are facing similar cuts. Authorities in Minsk prohibited a Chernobyl-dedicated march throughout the city, restricting it to a small rally.
Evgeny Akimov, a nuclear engineer and the former head of the Chernobyl containment facility, said he is convinced that the scale of the disaster at the Fukushima plant is far smaller since "no fuel has been discharged outside the reactor vessels."
An international donors conference in Kiev last week raised 550 million euros ($798 million) of the 740 million euros needed to build a new shelter over the Chernobyl plant and a storage facility for spent fuel.