Today, on the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, Ukraine's Prime Minister Mykola Azarov pledged that his government would never abolish benefits for victims of the world's worst nuclear disaster.
Some 2.2 million people injured by the Chernobyl disaster receive social benefits. Even in difficult financial circumstances, "The government will never initiate disaffirmation of these privileges," Azarov emphasized at a news conference in Kiev. "We can handle this - I give my word," he said.
On April 26, 1986, an explosion and fire at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, now Ukraine, released radioactive contamination into the atmosphere, which spread over much of Western Russia and Europe.
While Soviet authorities suppressed information after the disaster, its vast scope has since become clear.
More than 145,000 square kilometers (56,000 square miles) of territory in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia were contaminated with radionuclides, Prime Minister Azarov said in Parliament today. Some 91,000 people were evacuated from the cities of Prypyat and Chernobyl, he said.
"The word Chernobyl has become the embodiment of unprecedented catastrophe - nuclear energy out of control," said the Prime Minister, "a catastrophe of global scale that changed forever the fate of hundreds of thousands of people within seconds."
In the 20 years since independence the government has paid attention to the problem, Azarov said. More than 27,000 families have been resettled from contaminated areas, and they have built dozens of new towns, laid hundreds of kilometers of gas pipelines, water pipelines and other infrastructure.
In his address to Parliament, Azarov said the Chernobyl disaster has cost Ukraine about US$180 billion. "Despite the difficult economic situation Ukraine during the past 20 years is financing the costs of relief efforts by itself. The share of expenses for these purposes in different years reached 10 percent of total expenditures of the State Budget of Ukraine," he said.
Existing power units at Ukrainian nuclear power plants are being upgraded, increasing their level of security, said Azarov. In a joint project, the European Union, Ukraine and the International Atomic Energy Agency have conducted a unique comprehensive assessment of the safety of all Ukrainian nuclear power plants.
"IAEA experts and the EU have established compliance of all units of Ukrainian nuclear power plants with modern demands of the IAEA's nuclear security," said Azarov.
At Chernobyl today, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced that he will propose a stricter safety regime for the world's nuclear power plants at next month's G8 summit meeting of the world's most industrialized nations in France.
"We believe that additional safety requirements must be adopted for the construction and operation of nuclear power facilities," said Medvedev. "They must be consolidated as international legal instruments and made mandatory for all states."
"It is vitally important that new nuclear power plants are built with the highest safety barriers," he said, "and that the principles of openness and absolute transparency become the norm for all nuclear facilities in the world."
The proposals are the result of analysis of events at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan and are a response to the rapid growth of civil nuclear power facilities around the world, said Medvedev.
"The proposals will concern the responsibility of the countries using nuclear power, including the timely measures in case of emergency," Medvedev said. "Today we mourn for those who died and lived through that tragedy," he said.
President Medvedev and President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych attended a service at the St. Elijah Church in Chernobyl commemorating the victims of the accident. The Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia held the Easter service.
Later, the presidents of Russia and Ukraine took part in the ceremony of laying the first stone of the future memorial to the crews who worked to remediate the Chernobyl disaster. The monument will be erected by December 14, when Ukraine marks the "Chernobyl Accident Liquidators Day."
The two leaders rang bells and laid flowers at the monument in memory of the first victims of the Chernobyl disaster, a complex of red granite slabs engraved with the names of 28 firefighters who died during the summer of 1986 located on the accident site in front of the plant.
Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych linked the Chernobyl disaster with the ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan, where workers are still struggling to bring the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant under control after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
"Twenty-five years have passed and we have become fully aware that man-made disasters and nuclear accidents have enormous consequences for the people living in the areas where they take place," said Yanukovych. "Today the whole world has realised that such disasters have no borders: Fukushima-1 is a tragic example of this. The whole world understands now that no state can cope with such a disaster alone."
"We are very grateful to all countries that took part in a conference devoted to the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl," said Yanukovych. "We are grateful to Mr. Medvedev for Russia's decision to make a considerable contribution, 45 million euros, to finance the shelter project."
The donors conference last week that sought 740 million euros ($1.1 billion) to build a new protective shelter to cover the destroyed reactor fell short of its goal, raising just 550 million euros ($785 million), to complete the 1.54 billion euro project.
The new domed shelter will be assembled next to the reactor building, which is now covered with a concrete shell designed to last for 25 years. Once completed, the shelter will be slid on rails over the existing shell.
Designed to last 100 years, the new sarcophagus is scheduled for completion in 2015; then the reactor can be deconstructed.
The funds are also expected to cover the construction of a facility to store radioactive waste from Chernobyl's three other decommissioned reactors.
The project design has received regulatory approval by the Ukrainian authorities and work on the site has begun.
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development is managing the international donor funds for Chernobyl. Bank President Thomas Mirow said, "This is an encouraging result and we strongly welcome the donors' strong commitment to work together with Ukraine to implement lasting solutions in Chernobyl."
"This is a significant achievement which represents a major step forward," said Mirow, "but also a great responsibility for the consortium to deliver in time and within budget and make the site safe for the generations to come."