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Chernobyl - Ukrainian AIDS

Vienna, April 10 (RFE/RL) - An international conference on the effects the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident had on people's health and the environment opened yesterday in Vienna. Some 700 delegates are attending the meeting which is held on the 10th anniversary of the explosion at the Ukrainian plant.

The conference is sponsored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the European Commission and the World Health Organisation.

Last week, the IAEA sponsored an international forum, also held in Vienna, on the safety aspects of the Chernobyl-type nuclear reactors. The forum threw doubt on the safety of all Chernobyl-type RMBK reactors, of which there are 15 in the Ukraine, Russia and Lithuania. With regard to Chernobyl itself,the IAEA says the sarcohpagus - the cement casing - built around the destroyed reactor there in the days and weeks after the accident is full of cracks. This could lead to a radioactive leak into the ground water.

Among the subjects under discussion at the current conference are increasing cancer rates in the Ukraine and surrounding regions, the fate of the victims of the blast and the danger to water supplies.

Last month, European and Soviet scientists presented a four-year study into childhood thyroid cancers in the area around the plant. Their report claimed radiation was not to blame for an increase in cancer and other diseases. It also said only 45 people were killed as a result of the accident.

The findings have been hotly disputed by Kyiv, which says 125,000 people died in Ukraine alone. Kyiv estimates 3.2 million people were badly affected by subsequent radiation, including almost a million children. Kyiv also points to the upsurge in cancer cases, especially in unusual and difficult to treat forms of leukaemia - dubbed "the Ukrainian AIDS" by Ukrainian residents.

Belarus suffered even more from Chernobyl accident, with 70 per cent of all radiation falling on its territory, leaving up to a quarter of its land contaminated.

According to officials in Belarus, cancer cases resulting from the disaster are expected to reach a peak in nine years time. In contaminated regions, the incidence of thyroid, breast cancer and leukaemia is two to three times higher than elsewhere in the country.

The psychological consequences of the disaster are also under discussion. Researchers at Kyiv University have even coined the phrase "Chernobyl syndrome" to describe a growing sense of despair among radiation victims. The syndrome is said to include a hightened rate of suicide and a refusal by mothers to have babies because of fears the children will be born deformed.

The public's perception of the accident, as well as its impact on the environment, the economy and politics are also on the conference agenda.

There is growing concern over the quality of Ukraine's water supply. Ukrainian officials have warned that plutonium and other dangerous radioactive particles released during the accident are already in the ground water.

Last year, Ukraine's President Leonid Kuchma agreed - under Western pressure - to close Chernobyl's two remaining reactors by the year 2000. Wealthy western countries have pledged 3,100 million dollars in aid and credits to finance the shutdown.

But Kiev complains that the West has failed so far to release the funds to start the shutdown. Foreign Minister Hennady Udovenko has said he intends to outline the "real situation" to G7 leaders at the up-coming Moscow summit on nuclear issues. And he is expected to ask the West for further aid.