Putin: Chernobyl Disaster Should Serve as a Lesson to the World

President Vladimir Putin speaks to delegates of the Russian Engineering Union congress in Moscow, April 19. Vasily Maximov/Pool/Reuters

The Chernobyl disaster should serve as a "harsh lesson to humanity," Russian President Vladimir Putin said.

The meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear plant near the north Ukrainian town of Pripyat in 1986 caused what is still regarded as the worst civil nuclear disaster in history. Design flaws in the Soviet-made plant blew the top off its fourth reactor in a massive explosion. Radioactive content began to spill, first to Pripyat, then much deeper into Ukraine, nearby Belarus, Russia and toward northern Europe.

Soviet authorities were slow to confirm the incident publicly, even as radioactivity was spreading well beyond the boundaries of the Union and its allies. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev waited three weeks before commenting on the disaster at all.

The death toll is widely contested due to the lack of free access to the site of the plant in the immediate aftermath of the disaster and the difficulty in diagnosing degrees of harm from radioactivity.

Around 50 workers in the plant are estimated to have died as a result of the blast and its immediate effects, but around 2,200 radioactivity related deaths are expected among the 200,000 emergency personnel who helped contain the situation.

In his statement on the 30th anniversary of the disaster, Putin praised the Soviet emergency services at the time and lamented the ongoing effect radiation from Chernobyl is having on many.

"The magnitude of the tragedy could have been immeasurably larger if it were not for the incomparable bravery and self-sacrifice of fire fighters, military personnel, experts and medics who honourably fulfilled their citizen's duty. Many of them sacrificed themselves to save others."

"We are right to consider all participants in efforts to limit the effects of this terrifying catastrophe, genuine heroes and we bow to the memory of those who died," Putin added.