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Ukraine: Chornobyl Killed Thousands, Changed Attitudes To Nuclear Energy

  • Jeremy Bransten

Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma tomorrow will order the shutdown of the Chornobyl nuclear power plant, keeping a pledge to the international community and ending a chapter in the history of nuclear energy which the world would rather forget. The 1986 explosions at the plant, which spewed radiation over large portions of Europe, remain the worst civilian nuclear accident to date. The name "Chernobyl" has entered the history books as a byword for disaster. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten recalls the accident and explores its affects.

Prague, 14 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- In the early hours of 26 April 1986, technicians at the Chornobyl nuclear power station -- 80 kms north of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv -- were running a test of the plant's number 4 reactor. They disregarded safety procedures as they proceeded.

Within minutes, fuel rods in the reactor's core experienced a sudden loss of cooling water. The meltdown had begun. At 1:23 in the morning, local time, the chain reaction in the reactor spun out of control, causing explosions and a fireball which blew off the building's roof.

A plume of radiation gradually swept north of the plant, across the rich farmlands of northern Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic states into Scandinavia. Despite Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's newly proclaimed policy of "glasnost" -- or openness -- Moscow followed past practice and initially kept mum about the accident.

It wasn't until heightened radiation levels tripped alarms at a Swedish nuclear power plant that the Soviet leadership admitted that something was amiss. Two days after the accident, Soviet television finally announced that an accident had occurred at Chornobyl. Despite the spread of radiation, outdoor May Day parades in nearby Kyiv went ahead. A decision to evacuate people living within a 30-kilometer radius of the plant was not made until the next day

Slowly, over the next two weeks, information about the scale of the disaster began to trickle through government censors. Gorbachev did not appear on television to discuss the disaster until 15 May. All the while, the stricken Chornobyl reactor continued to spew out radiation into the atmosphere.

To slow the outflow, fire-fighting units made up of men called "liquidators" ran relays onto the plant's mangled roof, dumping shovelfuls of hot graphite into the gaping hole. After two weeks the opening was closed. Eventually, the entire reactor was sealed within a 300,000-ton concrete and metal sarcophagus.

Thirty-one people died in the immediate aftermath of the accident, of acute radiation poisoning. But over the next four years, more than 600,000 people took part in clean-up efforts inside the 30-kilometer exclusion zone around the plant. Many still face long-term health consequences.

According to government figures in Kyiv, more than 4,000 people who took part in clean-up work have died to date from Chornobyl- related illnesses. Another 70,000 have been disabled. UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan noted recently that according to UN specialists, three million children in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia require treatment as a result of radiation exposure and many of them are expected to die prematurely of thyroid and other cancers.

In addition to the medical consequences, hundreds of thousands of people have been uprooted from their homes. More than 150,000 people were evacuated from the immediate radiation fallout zone in Ukraine and another 130,000 people across the border in Belarus were forced to relocate.

The Chornobyl accident changed perceptions of nuclear power around the world, reinforcing public fears of atomic energy and prompting several European countries to rethink their nuclear power strategies. But Hans Friederich Meyer, spokesman for the UN's Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, says that, paradoxically, the accident also had a beneficial impact, leading to new international safety conventions.

"The Chornobyl accident was really a big event and in the field of nuclear safety, it created a new awareness and, from our point of view, from the point of view of the International Atomic Energy Agency -- in the longer run -- a real improvement in the safety culture."

Although the design of the Chornobyl plant is considered less safe than the layout of plants operating in Western Europe, many countries, including Germany, have now adopted plans to gradually phase out their reliance on nuclear power. Among the European Union's 15 member states, only France remains fully committed to the technology.

Despite their announced intentions, Meyer says Western European countries will have a difficult time weaning themselves off nuclear power, at least in the short term. For the moment there are few non-polluting alternatives that can provide alternative supplies of electricity in sufficient quantities.

"If we look to the global warming question and climate change, it is very difficult for European countries to close down a great number of their nuclear power plants. One must take into account that in many Western European countries, the share of nuclear electricity is quite high."

Tomorrow's shutdown of Chornobyl puts a symbolic end to a plant that had become a byword for catastrophe. But it is not the end of nuclear power, for now. What will happen to similar plants in other post-Soviet states, which continue to operate -- among them the Ignalina power station in Lithuania -- remains unresolved.

In an ironic final twist to the Chornobyl saga, technicians had to restart the plant's last operating reactor on Thursday -- it had been shut down due to a minor malfunction -- so that President Leonid Kuchma could order the cessation of operations tomorrow. Nuclear safety is one thing, but losing face is quite another.