Image: Ukrainians light candles
Efrem Lukatsky  /  AP
Ukrainians light candles to commemorate those who died after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, during a ceremony at the memorial to Chernobyl firefighters in the city of Slavutich, Ukraine, on April 26.
updated 4/25/2011 9:14:22 PM ET 2011-04-26T01:14:22

Black-clad Orthodox priests sang solemn hymns, Ukrainians lit thin wax candles and a bell tolled 25 times for the number of years that have passed since the Chernobyl disaster as the world began marking the anniversary Tuesday of the worst nuclear accident in history.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill led the nighttime service near a monument to firefighters and cleanup workers who died soon after the accident from acute radiation poisoning.

"The world had not known a catastrophe in peaceful times that could be compared to what happened in Chernobyl," said Kirill, who was accompanied by Ukraine's Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and other officials.

Story: Photographers recall Chernobyl's first days

"It's hard to say how this catastrophe would have ended if it hadn't been for the people, including those whose names we have just remembered in prayer," he said in an emotional tribute to the workers sent to the Chernobyl plant immediately after one of its reactors exploded to try to contain the contamination.

Tuesday's service began at 1:23 a.m. (2123 GMT), the time of the blast on April 26, 1986, that spewed a cloud of radioactive fallout over much of Europe and forced hundreds of thousands from their homes in the most heavily hit areas in Ukraine, Belarus and western Russia.

The explosion released about 400 times more radiation than the U.S. atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima. Hundreds of thousands were sickened and once-pristine forests and farmland still remain contaminated. The U.N.'s World Health Organization said at a conference in Kiev last week that among the 600,000 people most heavily exposed to the radiation, 4,000 more cancer deaths than average are expected to be eventually found.

Several hundred Ukrainians, mostly widows of plant workers and those sent in to deal with the disaster, came to Tuesday's service to pay their respects to their loved ones and colleagues. Teary-eyed, they lit candles, stood in silence and crossed themselves to the sound of Orthodox chants.

"Our lives turned around 360 degrees," said Larisa Demchenko, 64. She and her husband both worked at the plant, and he died nine years ago from cancer linked to Chernobyl radiation.

"It was a wonderful town, a wonderful job, wonderful people. It was our youth. Then it all collapsed," she said. "If only you knew how much our hearts ache for our children, how many sick grandchildren there are, how many couples without kids.

"We come here to look each other in the face. If it hadn't been for the people buried here, Kiev would no longer exist," Demchenko said.

Russia, Ukraine and Belarus have cut the benefits packages for sickened cleanup workers in recent years, and many workers complained directly to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev as he handed them awards for their work at a ceremony Monday in Moscow.

Officials in Bryansk, the Russian region most contaminated by the disaster, have failed to make necessary repairs at the local cancer hospital, worker Leonid Kletsov told the president.

"It's the only place of rest for us," he said. "Officials promised to renovate it, but these promises are still promises."

Medvedev was to join Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovych for memorial ceremonies in Chernobyl later Tuesday.

PhotoBlog: Chernobyl's first days

A service similar to the one in Kiev was held at the same time early Tuesday in Slavutich, a town about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Chernobyl that was built for people evacuated from homes close to the plant.

Vladimir Stanelevich, a 61-year-old former cleanup worker, said he came to remember the people who gave their lives to protect others.

"You understand, there (in Japan) it was let's say a natural catastrophe, and here it was a technological one. it's a big difference."

Chernobyl has come into renewed focus since an earthquake and tsunami triggered a nuclear disaster in Japan last month, with the country still struggling to bring the radiation-spewing Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant under control.

Japanese newspapers on Monday highlighted the significance of Chernobyl. The Asahi interviewed a former Chernobyl worker under the headline: "Fukushima, don't tread the same route."

In Germany, thousands of people demonstrated on Monday near several nuclear power plants, demanding a speedy end to the use of atomic energy. Japan's crisis has prompted Germany to freeze plans to extend the life of its plants, order a temporary shutdown of its seven oldest reactors and seek a quicker transition to renewable energy.

In Austria, Chancellor Werner Faymann used an event in Vienna marking the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl to call for a nuclear-free Europe.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: The fallout from Chernobyl

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  1. An aerial photo of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant taken two or three days after the April 1986 explosion and fire. The blast spewed a cloud of radioactive fallout over much of Europe and forced hundreds of thousands from their homes in the most heavily hit areas in Ukraine, Belarus and western Russia. The disaster did not become public knowledge for several days because Soviet officials released no information until 72 hours after the accident. (Volodymir Repik / AP file) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. In this 1986 photo, a helicopter dropping chemicals to suppress radiation approaches the fourth destroyed reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. On May 12 1986, more than two weeks after the explosion, the leading Soviet daily newspaper Pravda published its first photograph from the site, shot three days earlier from a helicopter by Volodymyr Repik. "If I had been ordered now to get aboard and go, I would not have gone -- you might have easily died there for nothing," the 65-year-old photographer said. (Volodymyr Repik / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. So-called liquidators clean the roof of reactor three at the nuclear plant in Sept., 1986. Robots were initially used to clear the debris, but they could not cope with the extreme radiation levels and so authorities turned to humans. As a result of excessive radiation exposure, many liquidators died prematurely or now suffer from severe health problems. (Igor Kostin / Corbis Sygma) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A Kiev resident reads about the Chernobyl nuclear accident in a newspaper in April, 1986. The disaster did not become public knowledge for several days because Soviet officials released no information until 72 hours after the accident. (Boris Yurchenko / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A victim of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in a Kiev burn center in July 1986. The explosion released about 400 times more radiation than the U.S. atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima. Hundreds of thousands were sickened and once-pristine forests and farmland remain contaminated. (Igor Kostin / CORBIS SYGMA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. The inhabitants of a village evacuated nine years earlier in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster, return in December 1995 to try to recover their belongings. A 19-mile (30-kilometer) area around the plant has been uninhabited except for occasional plant workers and several hundred local people who returned to their homes despite official warnings. (Anatoli Kliashchuk / Corbis Sygma) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A funeral for a child named Andrea, a victim of the Chernobyl disaster, in May 1995, in Minsk, Belarus. The official immediate death toll from Chernobyl was 31, but many more died later of radiation-related sicknesses such as cancer. (Anatoli Kliashchuk / Corbis Sygma) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A Chernobyl nuclear power plant worker holds a dosimeter to measure radiation level as construction continued on a sarcophagus over the fourth destroyed reactor in 1986. (Volodymyr Repik / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Duty engineers at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant stand at their stations moments after the plant's third reactor was shutdown in Chernobyl, Ukraine, on Friday Dec. 15, 2000. Chernobyl's third reactor was shut down permanently, officially closing the plant that caused the world's worst nuclear accident in 1986. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. In this Nov.10, 2000 file photo, vehicles contaminated by radiation lay idle near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Some 1,350 Soviet military helicopters, buses, bulldozers, tankers, transporters, fire engines and ambulances were used to try to contain the damage from the April 26, 1986 nuclear accident. (Efrem Lukatsky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Vika Chervinska, an 8-year-old Ukrainian girl suffering from cancer, waits to receive treatment with her mother at the children's hospital in Kiev Tuesday, April 18, 2006. The U.N.'s World Health Organization has said that among the 600,000 people most heavily exposed to the radiation, 4,000 more cancer deaths than average are expected to be eventually found. (Oded Balilty / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. In this photo taken April 3, 2006, schoolchildren wear gas masks during nuclear safety training lessons in Rudo near an isolated zone around Ukraine's Chernobyl nuclear power plant. (Sergey Ponomarev / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Women hold portraits of emergency workers who fought the blaze at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, as they walk past a guard of honor during a commemoration ceremony in Kiev, on Dec. 14, 2010. (Gleb Garanich / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. A cross is pictured in the ghost city of Pripyat, near Chernobyl, on April 18, 2011, as Ukraine marks the 25th anniversary of the disaster this month. A 19-mile (30-kilometer) area around the plant has been uninhabited except for occasional plant workers and several hundred local people who returned to their homes despite official warnings. (Sergei Supinsky / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. A Belarusian guard opens the gate at the entrance to the state radiation ecology reserve in the 30 kilometer exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor near the village of Babchin, some 217 miles southeast of Minsk, Feb. 21, 2011. (Vasily Fedosenko / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Wild boars walk in the forest of the state radiation ecology reserve in the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor near the village of Babchin, some 230 miles southeast of Minsk on Feb. 22, 2011. Still inhospitable to humans, the exclusion zone is now a nature reserve and teems with wild animals and birds. (Vasily Fedosenko / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A visitor walks in front of the damaged fourth reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on Feb. 24, 2011. (Gleb Garanich / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A visitor films in the control room of the fourth reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on Feb. 24, 2011. Ukraine said early this year it will lift restrictions on tourism around the power plant, formally opening the site of the world's worst nuclear accident to visitors. (Sergei Supinsky / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A child wears a mask at a hospital for people suffering from leukemia in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, on March 23, 2011. The blasts at the Soviet-era plant created a cloud of radioactive dust that drifted over a large part of Europe and still haunts millions of people in Ukraine and neighboring countries. Among the 600,000 people most heavily exposed to radiation, 4,000 more cancer deaths than average are expected to be eventually found, according to the U.N.'s World Health Organization. (Alexander Khudoteply / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. A visitor looks through the bus window at the sarcophagus covering the destroyed fourth block of Chernobyl's power plant on March 28, 2011. The sarcophagus has gone past its expected service life and work has begun to build an enormous shelter that will be rolled over the reactor building. The new shelter, designed to last 100 years, is expected to be in place by 2015, but a substantial amount of money for the project is still lacking. (Genya Savilov / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. A view of the abandoned city of Prypiat, near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, March 31, 2011. (Gleb Garanich / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. An aerial view of the abandoned village Krasnoselje in the state radiation ecology reserve in the 30 kilometer exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, some 390 kilometers rom Minsk, Belarus, on March 23 2011. The inhabitants of the village were evacuated five days after the blast at the Chernobyl nuclear plant on April 26, 1986. (Tatyana Zenkovich / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. A child's gas mask and a doll are seen inside a kindergarten in the abandoned city of Prypiat near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on April 4, 2011. (Gleb Garanich / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Local resident Ivan Ilchenko, 76, walks in a field in the village of the Kupovate in the exclusion around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on April 4, 2011. (Gleb Garanich / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Ivan Semenyuk, right, 74, chops wood as his wife Maria Semenyuk, 72, left, looks on at their house in the deserted village of Paryshev, 25 km from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, on April 20, 2011. More than 330 residents refused relocation after the 1986 nuclear accident in reactor No. 4, choosing to live within the 30 kilometer exclusion zone around the contaminated plant. (Sergey Dolzhenko / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. A worker from the State Radiation Ecological Reserve tests radiation levels at a farm in Vorotets on April 21, 2011, close to the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. (Viktor Drachev / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Natalia Makeenko, 72, left, hugs Galina Shcyuka, 82, in the abandoned village of Savichi on April 21, 2011, close to the 30 kilometer exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor and 400 kilometers south-east of Minsk, the capital of Belarus. One-fifth of Belarus' agricultural land was contaminated following the blast at the Ukranian nuclear reactor and around 70 percent of the fallout fell in Belarus. (Viktor Drachev / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Pupils and teachers of the ecological gymnasium light candles to commemorate victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Minsk, Belarus, on April 25. Former cleanup workers and environmental groups claim ex-Soviet governments are failing to protect their people from the disaster's deadly legacy. (Sergei Grits / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. A man grieves at the monument to Chernobyl victims in Slavutich, where many of the power station's personnel used to live, during a memorial ceremony early on April 26. (Sergei Supinsky / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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Timeline: Chernobyl - The nuclear disaster that shook the world

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