This comes amid a dispute over the number of deaths and long-term health effects caused by the accident.

Vladimir Demidov, a Health Ministry official charged with Chernobyl matters, said 7,000 to 8,000 Russians died as a result of the accident, and about 60,000 have been declared disabled because of the damage to their health.

The explosion at Chernobyl's reactor No 4 spewed radiation across northern Ukraine, western Russia, Belarus and much of northern Europe over a 10-day period.

Death tolls connected to the explosion, which released about 400 times more radiation than the US atom bomb dropped over Hiroshima, remain debated, though at least 31 people died as a direct result of trying to contain the fire.

The Health Ministry's figures appeared to contradict other estimates, including two United Nations studies.

Cancers

A report by the World Health Organisation, the UN health agency, released last week said about 9,300 people in all affected areas were likely to die of cancers caused by radiation.

People in affected areas are
consuming irradiated food

A study by the International Atomic Energy Agency and several other UN groups conducted last year came to a similar conclusion, predicting that the disaster would cause about 9,000 deaths.

Environmental organisations have dismissed the United Nations' figures as being wildly understated.

Some groups, including Greenpeace, have put the numbers 10 times higher.

Politics

Vladimir Chuprov, an expert with Greenpeace Russia, called the UN figures "a political order on the part of the nuclear industry, which is trying to rehabilitate itself and overcome the main hurdle which stands in the way of the nuclear renaissance that everybody is talking about."

Vyacheslav Grishin, head of Russia's Chernobyl Union, also disputed the UN and Russia's Health Ministry figures.

He said the estimated 30,000 Russian cleanup workers who have died since the accident perished as a result of physical and psychological ailments.

He urged government officials to pay Chernobyl cleanup workers 2 billion rubles ($73 million) in compensation, to which he said courts have ruled they are entitled.

"They need to be shown care and compassion," Grishin told a news conference.

Meanwhile, Russia's chief public health official, expressed concern that some of the 1.5 million Russians living in areas contaminated by radiation from Chernobyl regularly consume irradiated food.

Gennady Onishchenko, Russia's chief public health official, said in a statement that about 4,300 towns and villages in 14 Russian provinces are located in areas irradiated from the accident.