The United Nations says persistent and serious long-term consequences remain more than 30 years after the explosion and fire at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine.
The warning came as the UN marks International Chernobyl Disaster Remembrance Day on April 26, the 34th anniversary of the accident that spread a radioactive cloud over large parts of Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia.
More than 1,000 firefighters were working on April 26 to try to put out brushfires and forest fires that have been burning the past three weeks within the 30-kilometer exclusion zone around the plant -- raising concerns about the potential release of radioactive particles into the air.
The firefighters on April 26 were focusing on trying to contain fires in two separate areas where trees and brush are smoldering, Ukraine's State Emergency Service said.
Ukrainian officials have attributed smoky air in Kyiv in recent days to fires in the nearby Zhytomyr region, assuring residents that radiation levels in the Ukrainian capital are within an acceptable range.
Background radiation in Kyiv is "stable" and does "not exceed the permissible values," the State Emergency Service said on April 26.
The 1986 reactor meltdown and explosion at Chernobyl is considered the worst civilian nuclear disaster in history. Dozens of people, particularly firefighters and other first responders, died as a direct result of the disaster.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy honored the memory of those who risked their lives to help contain radiation at the site in the months after the explosion and fire at the nuclear power plant in 1986.
"On this day we bow our heads to the blessed memory of those heroes who saved the future from the danger of radiation," Zelenskiy said in a statement for the anniversary.
Zelenskiy also expressed "deep respect" for the firefighters and others currently working in the zone to "protect these lands from new natural disasters."
The UN General Assembly adopted a resolution in December 2016 designating April 26 as a day to recognize the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster.
Its statement says that while progress has been made, “There is still a great deal of work that needs to be done in the affected region.”
The UN says the completion of a confinement structure over the reactor most heavily damaged in the accident was a major milestone of 2019.
It noted that the project received more than 2 billion dollars in funding from 45 donor nations through funds managed by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). The scope of the project in terms of international cooperation is one of the largest ever seen in the field of nuclear safety, the UN said.
The UN's involvement in Chernobyl recovery efforts dates back to a resolution passed in 1990. UN agencies continue to work closely with the governments of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine to provide development assistance to the communities affected by the disaster.
The UN's statement on Chernobyl remembrance day does not mention the forest fires and brushfires that have been burning in the exclusion zone for three weeks. The largest of several blazes was extinguished last week. Smaller fires continue to burn in the zone, the authority that administrates it said on April 24.
Video showing plumes of smoke billowing from the charred landscape earlier this month alarmed environmental activists, who said the burning of contaminated trees and other vegetation could disperse radioactive particles.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says the increase in levels of radiation measured in the country was very small and posed "no risk to human health."
The Vienna-based IAEA, which acts as the UN nuclear watchdog, said it was basing its assessment on data provided by Ukraine.
There have been "some minor increases in radiation," the IAEA said, adding the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine found the concentration of radioactive materials in the air remained below Ukraine's radiation safety norms.