Tens of thousands of firefighters died as a result of their efforts to stop an atomic explosion at Chernobyl which would have made Europe uninhabitable, it was claimed today.
On the 19th anniversary of the explosion, the Chernobyl Children’s Project International said that fires at the nuclear plant could have triggered a nuclear explosion of 50 to 80 times the force of Hiroshima.
Paying homage to the 25,000 “liquidators” who died and the 70,000 who are permanently disabled as a result of making the reactor safe, Adi Roche of the Chernobyl Children’s Project said they had given their lives to save the continent.
She said that while people had a “searing image” of the firefighters in 9/11, nobody had a similar understanding of the heroism of the liquidators.
The men at the plant could often work for only a few seconds at a time due to high radiation levels and had little in the way of protective clothing.
Workers also had to clear villages and evacuate residents, killing cats and dogs to stop them carrying radioactivity out of the affected area.
Nineteen school children each with a candle and a photograph of a worker, today commemorated the self-sacrifice of the men who died as a result of exposure to radioactivity.
The Chernobyl Children’s Project International warned that nearly 20 years on from the original disaster, the consequences would not be fully felt for another five decades.
Clouds of radioactivity which were dispersed from the plant have exposed the people of Belarus to radioactivity 90 times greater than the rate of Hiroshima.
Adi Roche said that congenital birth defects have increased by 250% since the disaster, while one in four children in Belarus will develop thyroid abnormalities including cancer.
The Belorussian Ambassador to the UK, Dr Alyaksei Mazhukhou, said that 1.5 million people, including 420,000 children, were still living in affected areas.
“Chernobyl remains a great burden for our people and our economy,” he said.
Environmentalist Duncan Stewart said: “We have to realise that 19 years later the consequences are still there.
“People are still suffering. It’s gone on in the next generation in terms of genes.
“When you’re there, you realise that we really have forgotten that so many people in this region are still suffering so badly and will continue to suffer on into the future.”
The cement “sarcophagus” that covers the damaged reactor and which contains 97% of the plant’s lethal material is in need of repair, at a cost of €758m.
The unstable reactor has been identified as a possible terrorist target, adding further urgency to the need for work on it, Ms Roche said.
The Children’s Project called for the international community to help make the reactor safe and rebuild the lives of the people affected.
The ambassador and the charity, which works with children in Belarus, today signed up to the UN development programme for the region.