Chernobyl: Ukraine marks 35 years since world's worst nuclear disaster

Kiev, Ukraine: On the 35th anniversary of the world's worst nuclear disaster, President Volodymyr Zelensky was scheduled to visit the Chernobyl exclusion zone and address Ukrainians.

The exclusion zone is a 30-kilometer (20-mile) area around the nuclear power plant, which was evacuated after an accident and considered unfit for human habitation for thousands of years.

Hundreds of people gathered in the nearby ghost town of Pripyat ahead of his arrival to hold an overnight vigil with candles in memory of those who died in the crash.

The explosion in Chernobyl's fourth reactor during a safety test on April 26, 1986, resulted in the deaths of approximately 30 people.

Thousands of people are thought to have died as a result of radiation poisoning in the years since, both in Ukraine and its northern neighbor Belarus, as well as in Russia to the east.

Since the Soviet authorities kept much of the facts about the tragedy secret, the precise number of casualties is still a point of contention.

Hundreds of thousands of residents were displaced from the disaster area, and the exclusion zone has since become a ghostly wasteland.

Around 600,000 emergency personnel and state employees, dubbed "liquidators," were sent to help clean up the disaster's aftermath with little or no protective gear.

According to a 2005 United Nations study, the invisible poison could kill up to 4,000 people in Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus.

The next year, the environmental organization Greenpeace released its own report, claiming that 100,000 people had died as a result of the crash.

A huge metal dome was erected over the reactor's remains in November 2016, paid for with 2.1 billion euros ($2.5 billion) in foreign funds, to prevent any leaks and ensure the protection of Europeans for generations.

The region may not have been suitable for humans for 24,000 years, according to Ukrainian officials, but the site has been drawing more visitors in recent years, and Kiev wants to make it a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Flora and fauna have taken over abandoned tower blocks, stores, and government offices, transforming the city into a massive reserve unlike any other in Europe.

Wild horses flourish in Chernobyl 35 years after explosion

Three startled wild horses with rough coats and stiff manes dart into the thriving overgrowth of their unlikely nature reserve: the Chernobyl exclusion zone, down an overgrown country road.

Surging flora and fauna have taken over abandoned tower blocks, stores, and official buildings topped with communist symbols, 35 years after the world's worst nuclear disaster, which was commemorated in the ex-Soviet nation on Monday.

The region may not be suitable for humans for another 24,000 years, according to Ukrainian officials, but for the time being, this breed of wild horse has thrived.

"It's really a symbol of the reserve and even the exclusion zone in general," said Denys Vyshnevsky, head of the scientific department of the Chernobyl nature reserve created in the area five years ago.

The explosion in the fourth reactor of the nuclear power plant on April 26, 1986, polluted large areas of Ukraine and neighboring Belarus, resulting in the establishment of a no-land man's within a 30-kilometer (19-mile) radius of the plant.

Hundreds of villages and towns were evacuated, transforming the region into a massive reserve unlike any other in Europe.

An influx of tourists to the region has occurred more than three decades after the event, prompting authorities to seek official status — and immunity — from UNESCO.

A 'special' opportunity to preserve wildlife 

Since the disaster, the region has become a sanctuary for elk, wolves, and Przewalski's horse, a stocky endangered Asian wild horse breed.

The breed, which was named after Russian scientist Nikolai Przewalski, who discovered it in Asia's vast Gobi desert, was nearly extinct by the middle of the twentieth century, owing to overhunting.

As part of conservation efforts, scientists reintroduced it to Mongolia, China, and Russia.

In 1998, 30 of the horses were released into the Chernobyl zone as part of a different initiative, replacing the Tarpan, an extinct horse native to the region.

The experiment in Ukraine was quickly abandoned, but the horses persisted, numbering about 150 in some parts of the exclusion zone, with another 60 crossing the Belarusian frontier.

"Paradoxically, this is a unique opportunity to preserve biodiversity," Vyshnevsky said.

According to Sergiy Zhyla, Senior Researcher, Chernobyl Biosphere Reserve, the Ukrainian herd could eventually grow to 300 or even 500 animals under the right conditions.

The global population of Przewalski's horses has now risen to about 2,700, according to researchers at the Prague zoo who are involved in conservation efforts.

Following Chernobyl's success, there is talk of bringing other endangered species into Ukraine's region.

The European bison, which already roams freely across the border in Belarus, is one possible candidate, according to Vyshnevsky, and talks with the World Wildlife Fund, a global environmental NGO, are currently underway.

He said, "We'll be able to recreate the landscape that existed here before humans started intensively exploiting the area."

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