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Ukraine: Tomorrow Marks Anniversary Of Chornobyl Accident

  • Jeremy Bransten

Prague, 25 April 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Tomorrow marks the eleventh anniversary of the world's worst civilian nuclear accident. The explosion at Ukraine's Chornobyl atomic-power station concentrated the world's attention.

As clouds of radiation spread across Europe, doubts rained down about the future of nuclear energy. To opponents of nuclear power, Chornobyl became a synonym for disaster. Advocates of atomic power rejected this doomsday vision. But they admitted the accident illustrated the urgent need to improve the design of Soviet nuclear plants. All agreed that attention had to be focused on the issue and money spent to make things right again.

That was then. This is now. In 1997, Chornobyl still haunts the continent. But the new Europe has neither the money nor the political interest to do much about it.

Five years after the accident, in 1991, Ukraine gained its independence. Its capital city Kyiv still relied on the remaining reactors at Chornobyl for half of its energy. Nevertheless, Ukraine's new leaders said they were ready to shut down the plant by the year 2000, in exchange for $3 billion in aid.

The West nodded in approval, but called on Kyiv to show its good will by first ridding itself of its nuclear weapons. Financial assistance was provided and Ukraine complied. At the end of 1995, almost 10 years after the explosion, the Group of Seven (G-7) signed a preliminary agreement with Kyiv pledging aid for Chornobyl. First, however, the world's seven leading industrialized powers called on Kyiv to demonstrate more good will by shutting down one of the plant's two remaining reactors. No money was provided, but at the end of last year, Ukraine complied.

The year 2000 is now only 33 months away, but almost none of Kyiv's $3 billion request has arrived in Ukraine. Privately, officials at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) concede that not much of it ever will. Part of the problem is that Ukraine proposes to use a large portion of the money to complete two new atomic reactors at nuclear plants in Rivne and Khmelnitsky. Kyiv says it needs the reactors to replace Chornobyl's lost energy potential and to provide employment for displaced workers.

But the EBRD published a study earlier this year questioning this rationale. The bank's experts noted that Ukraine could have a large energy surplus without the new reactors, by modifying existing plants and making them more efficient. The problem, of course, is that retooling all of Ukraine's wasteful power stations would end of costing far more than $3 billion --and it would not provide any new permanent jobs. But, as the senior manager of the EBRD's nuclear safety department, Fulcieri Maltini, told RFE/RL: "You cannot justify the building of a nuclear power plant for employment reasons."

So far, the European Union, Switzerland, Japan, Norway and the United States have pledged about $100 million to decommission Chornobyl. That money does not cover the clean-up of the ruined fourth reactor. Western and Ukrainian officials have yet to agree on how to deal with the mass of smoldering radioactive debris, currently entombed under a concrete sarcophagus. But officials on both sides estimate the cost of permanently securing the site at around $1,000 million. Maltini says the EBRD is "in the process of establishing a fund that will define a project." He admits that coming up with the actual funds will be no easy task.

David Kyd, a spokesman for the UN International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) in Vienna, explains the reason for the impasse over funding succinctly. In essence, he told RFE/RL: "No-one is in the mood to tell the Ukrainian people to turn off their light bulbs, when they're already freezing."

With much of Ukraine's industry on the brink of collapse and its people braving this past winter with minimum heating supplies, talk of saving energy does not go down well in Kyiv. The political and financial cost of shutting down inefficient industries and refitting existing power plants is simply too high. So the Ukrainian government continues to press for money to complete its nuclear reactors, and the West continues to send missions to Kyiv. Little gets resolved.

Behind the scenes, officials say the cost of a nuclear-rescue package for Kyiv has also become too high for Western Europe. Governments across the region are struggling to trim their budgets to qualify for membership in an EU single currency. Many EU countries are also suffering from record unemployment. As one Western nuclear official, who requested anonymity, told RFE/RL: "We simply cannot give Ukraine the money it wants, because then all of Eastern Europe's 40 Soviet-built nuclear power plants would be at our doorstep, waiting for handouts."

For now, Chornobyl continues to power Kyiv. And for the foreseeable future, so will the similarly designed Ignalina nuclear plant in Lithuania and the troubled Kozlodui nuclear reactor in Bulgaria. The list is long. Money is short.

Chornobyl lies close to the Belarus border, and it was Belarus which bore the brunt of the radioactive fallout from the explosion on April 26, 1986. The long-term health effects of the accident are still being studied, but a large part of Belarus1 population has been permanently affected. A fifth of the country's soil is too contaminated to farm and cases of increasing childhood thyroid cancers are being closely monitored.

Last year, the Belarus government allowed a march through Minsk to mark the 10th anniversary of the disaster. But the demonstration soon turned into a boisterous protest against the increasingly authoritarian policies of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. The government cracked down hard immediately and over the following weeks. Police violently crushed further protests, while President Lukashenka's administration moved to ban the Belarus Popular Front (BNF), the country's largest opposition force. BNF leader Zyanon Paznyak eventually fled into exile. President Lukashenka dissolved parliament, reappointing a new body of loyalists in its place.

More than ever this year, Belarus is under Lukashenka's tight grip. But opposition leaders say they will not be muffled and are planning to use tomorrow's Chornobyl commemorations to make their message heard. Speaking to RFE/RL from neighboring Ukraine this week, Paznyak said the anti-Lukashenka movement was, in his words, "growing every day." But he called on demonstrators to keep their protests peaceful, and avoid any government provocation.