Chernobyl residents remember disaster, worry about jobs

Saturday, April 27, 2002

SLAVUTYCH, Ukraine -- Hundreds of people, many of them still working at the Chernobyl power plant, braved the biting cold on Friday to lay flowers and light candles at a memorial service to loved ones who died in the world's worst nuclear accident 16 years ago.

"I come every year," said Lyubov Rasovova, who was fortunate to have the day off from her job at Chernobyl on the day of the accident, April 26, 1986. Every year survivors mark the anniversary in the nearby town of Slavutych at 1:23 a.m., the moment when the explosion occurred, spewing radiation across Europe.

Rasovova manages a storage facility at Chernobyl and knew many of the 26 men and two women whose portraits are etched into the low, gray granite wall in the square commemorating workers who were killed within days of the explosion. Thousands more people in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia have since died from radiation-related illnesses.

Chernobyl closed in December 2000, but the work of dismantling the plant continues. While remorse for the past was foremost in people's minds Friday, there were also fears about the impending job losses when the work is finally finished.

About 1,500 people have left Slavutych since 2000 and more flight is expected. The city was built in the aftermath of the accident to house Chernobyl workers forcibly evacuated from homes in the plant's shadow.

"The main priority of the city today is survival," said Slavutych Mayor Vladimir Odovichenko. With efforts now focused on taking apart the nuclear plant, Odovichenko is reliant on international assistance for a large portion of his budget.

For the next two years, Odovichenko expects closure operations to provide many jobs for Slavutych residents, but he dreads future losses of skilled workers who seek jobs elsewhere.

Thousands of Slavutych's 25,000 residents still work in "the zone" -- an 18-mile swath of land that was evacuated soon after the accident and closed off to outsiders for years.

Confident mayor

However, the mayor is confident that his town -- which is just outside the zone -- is safe.

Despite a lack of work and questionable ecological safety, the decision to move is not an easy one for Slavutych residents as economic conditions have deteriorated throughout Ukraine in recent years.

"Before, the Soviet Union helped us, now we don't know what will happen," said Oleksandr Korolov, 50, who has worked at Chernobyl since 1978.

Emotional ties also contribute to Slavutych residents' decision to stay put.

"What's one to do?" said Rasovova. "I feel comfortable here-- it's my city, my job, my life. I'm used to it not being safe."

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