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Ukraine Marks 17th Anniversary of Chernobyl Disaster - 2003-04-25

Ukraine is preparing to mark the 17th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, the worst nuclear accident in history. The country's president Leonid Kuchma laid flowers Friday at the memorial dedicated to those who helped to contain the nuclear fallout. Meanwhile, concerns about the safety of the protective shield over Chernobyl's damaged reactor continue to mount.

Officials at the Chernobyl nuclear plant say the concrete shield over the reactor is weak and could collapse. In a statement issued Thursday, the plant management said the shield does not meet mechanical and structural safety requirements and parts of it could cave in. The shield was built shortly after the reactor failed and leaked a huge radiation cloud on April 26, 1986.

Earlier in the week, Russia's Atomic Energy Minister, Alexander Rumyantsev, accused Ukrainian authorities of negligence in monitoring the facility, and said the hastily built shield is already leaking radiation.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Anatoly Zlenko has dismissed the allegations, saying that the situation at Chernobyl is monitored and under control. He did, however, call for more money from Western nations to help build a new shield over the reactor.

Mr. Zlenko's remarks followed the release of previously secret KGB archives on the Chernobyl accident, which show that the authorities were aware the plant was dangerous long before the catastrophe. The documents include reports on violations of procedures when the plant was built and the equipment was assembled. A 1982 report from the Ukrainian KGB to Moscow describes one accident in which significant doses of radiation escaped into the atmosphere.

But the Soviet officials ignored the warnings and Chernobyl's reactor Number Four exploded in the early hours of April 26, 17 years ago. Radiation spread to more than 150,000 square kilometers in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, adversely affecting nearly seven million people.

Pollutants also were reported across numerous Western European countries.

In Moscow Friday, a small demonstration was reported near the Russian Atomic Energy Ministry to mark the anniversary. The demonstrators urged the Russian government to guarantee payments for people who helped with the clean-up operation during the most difficult and dangerous days immediately after the disaster.