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Ukraine: Chornobyl Closing Threatens Livelihood Of New Town

  • Lily Hyde

When Ukraine's Chornobyl nuclear power plant closes on Friday, it may mark the end of Slavutych, a new town built to house plant workers after the 1986 disaster. RFE/RL correspondent Lily Hyde recently visited Slavutych, where she found residents proud of their special town but apprehensive about its future.

Slavutych, Ukraine; 13 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Last weekend, the town of Slavutych was full of children, both local and from other nuclear towns around Ukraine.

Families toured exhibitions in Slavutych's palace of culture. Costumed dancers prepared for a concert. Cafes and restaurants were booked out for visiting journalists, choirs, or official delegations.

It may be the final burst of energy before this town dies.

On Friday (Dec 15), when the Chornobyl power plant finally shuts down, most of its inhabitants will lose their jobs.

Slavutych was built 12 years ago to house workers from the Chornobyl nuclear plant, the site of the world's worst civilian nuclear accident in 1986. Until a few years ago, it was one of the wealthiest towns in Ukraine, and its population is still one of the youngest: a third of its 26,000 inhabitants are children.

Their clean, new schools and playgrounds are located just 40 kilometers from Chornobyl. But the danger of persistent radiation is the last thing the Slavutych population worries about.

Although townspeople assisted in the clean-up after Chornobyl's fourth reactor blew up in 1986, and are now invalids as a result, many now feel a worse disaster is on the way -- when the plant closes its doors for good.

Serhiy Kasyanchuk, deputy director of the town's Palace of Culture, tells RFE/RL:

"One 100 percent of the inhabitants of Slavutych oppose the closure of Chornobyl. The station could work until 2012, and a lot of people are worrying about what they will do for a piece of bread, a roof over their heads. Our town is the youngest town in Ukraine and maybe in the whole [former] USSR. It would be shameful if it had the same fate as Pripyat."

Most of Slavutych's residents originally lived in the town of Pripyat, which had to be evacuated after the disaster. Pripyat, like Slavutych, was once also a special "new" town, housing mostly well-paid workers from the nuclear industry.

The dislocation and loss Slavutych's residents suffered then makes the threatened social destruction of Slavutych even more poignant.

Viktor Odinitsya is director of the United Nations Development Program's -- or UNDP's -- Social and Psychological Center in Slavutych. He says:

"These people have already lived through this once. They lost their workplaces, they lost their family connections and friends. They lost everything to come here to a new town where they adapted to new conditions, established new relations. And we want to force a new Pripyat on them. Do we want to make them live through that again? No one wants that. They want to live here, have a family, have a home which they have made their own."

The UNDP center was originally set up seven years ago to offer psychological help for radiation fears. But it soon found a more useful role -- helping people overcome uncertainty. Ukraine has been dilly-dallying over the closure of Chornobyl since the early 1990s, and its nearly 6,000 workers have long had to cope with a shadow over their livelihood. Odinitsya says:

"People who come to our center for consultation ask: 'What shall I do? Should I build a house or not? Should we buy a garage or not? Should we have a child or not?' The worst thing today is that people don't know what is awaiting them in the future, and so they can't plan."

The immediate future for most people is still unclear. Although the Chornobyl plant will close, it's not certain where many residents will go to find new jobs.

Some 2,000 people are expected to find employment decommissioning Chornobyl and working on repairing the shelter over its destroyed fourth reactor. But Slavutych's jobless rate is still expected to climb to more than 20 percent from its present 6 percent.

Part of the initial support will come from joint Ukrainian-foreign assistance to provide training and jobs.

The Ukrainian government has also established a Special Economic Zone around Slavutych. It has 22 registered enterprises, with hundreds of new jobs projected.

Only a small part of those jobs exist today, but Slavutych's mayor, Volodymyr Udovychenko, remains upbeat.

"Altogether there are 227 new working places in Slavutych. Is that few or a lot? I'm told it's few, but I think it's a lot because they are high-tech jobs, where you can earn good wages for our time, about $100 (a month). I would say Slavutych is on the right road, and that's the most important thing."

Nevertheless, about a quarter of the inhabitants say they will leave Slavutych to seek work elsewhere.