Kiev (AFP)

Ukraine commemorates the Chernobyl disaster on Monday, 35 years after the worst nuclear accident in history which contaminated much of Europe but whose site today attracts tourists and aspires to be listed in the Unesco.

President Volodymyr Zelensky is expected during the day in the exclusion zone surrounding the damaged power plant within a radius of 30 kilometers.

On April 26, 1986, at 1:23 a.m., reactor number 4 at the Chernobyl plant, located about 100 kilometers from Kiev, exploded during a safety test.

For ten days, the nuclear fuel burned, releasing radioactive elements into the atmosphere that contaminated, according to some estimates, up to three quarters of Europe but especially Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, then Soviet republics.

The Soviet authorities tried to hide this accident, Mikhail Gorbachev not intervening publicly until May 14.

A total of 116,000 people had to be evacuated in 1986 from the area around the plant, which is still virtually uninhabited today.

In the following years, 230,000 others suffered the same fate.

In four years, some 600,000 "liquidators" were dispatched to the scene of the accident with little, if any, protection to extinguish the fire, build a concrete screed to insulate the damaged reactor and clean up the surrounding areas.

Today, the human toll of the disaster is still debated.

The UN scientific committee (Unscear) officially recognizes only about thirty deaths among operators and firefighters killed by acute radiation just after the explosion.

The NGO Greenpeace estimated the number of deaths caused by the disaster in 2006 at 100,000.

The Chernobyl plant continued to generate electricity until December 2000, when its last operational reactor was shut down under pressure from the West.

After years of procrastination, a gigantic watertight steel arch was installed at the end of 2016 above the damaged reactor and commissioned in 2019.

At a cost of 2.1 billion euros, financed by the international community, this structure, which must ensure the security of the site for the next 100 years, covered the old concrete "sarcophagus", cracked and unstable, and allowed to better isolate the highly radioactive magma remaining in the reactor.

Even though authorities estimate that humans will not be able to live there safely for 24,000 years, the site is attracting more and more tourists in search of thrills and Kiev wants to make it a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The almost total absence of human activities in the area has allowed flora and fauna to proliferate.

There are lynxes, white-tailed eagles, sometimes even bears as well as hundreds of elks and dozens of wolves.

© 2021 AFP