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A Second Chernobyl? - Unlikely, But Possible

Vienna, April 4 (RFE/RL) - Atomic expert say that - although they consider it unlikely - they cannot rule out the possibility of another disaster at Chernobyl. Speaking at the close of an international conference in Vienna to mark ten years since the disaster, representatives of the United Nations nuclear monitoring agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said they remain concerned about safety at the Chernobyl site.

Our Vienna correspondent reports the safety fears centre on the concrete case, or Sarchophagus, hurriedly built around reactor number-four in the weeks after the explosion and fire. The covering is falling apart. More than a thousand square-meters of the tomb is covered in cracks, and the weight of the cement encasement has made the reactor sink four meters into the ground. If water leaks inside to the buried fuel, radioactive fumes could escape. The experts at this week's conference said there would be radiation both inside and outside, but not enough to create an explosion. It would release, they said, a very fine dust, and the impact would probably be limited to the 30-kilometre zone around the reactor.

Experts in Ukraine and from the West say the concrete covering needs to be repaired or replaced.

David Kyd, spokesman for the Vienna-based IAEA, which hosted this week's conference, says if something is not done, radioactivity from the still smouldering reactor could escape into the open.

The chairman of the meeting, German atomic energy expert Doctor Adolf Birkhofer, says safety at Chernobyl has considerably improved since the disaster ten years ago. But, he said he could not rule out the possibility of another disaster at Chernobyl, which is home to two of the total of 15 Chernobyl-type reactors still in operation in the former USSR. Birkhofer added: "An explosion should not happen again, (but) that does not mean that there could not be an accident again like a failure of many fuel channels."

Birkhofer blamed the original catastrophe on the faulty design of the Chernobyl-type nuclear plants, and also on a gross violation of safety procedure by staff and officials in Ukraine.

What remains to be seen, however, is who is to pay for the improvements, which still need to be made. Western diplomats and Ukranian officials have reported progress at talks held in Kyiv on financing. But Ukraine says there is a big gap between the amount of money the west has pledged, and how much is needed.

Under Western pressure, Ukraine's President Leonid Kuchma promised last year to close Chernobyl's two remaining reactors by the year 2000. The industrialised G-7 countries have in turn pledged $2.3-billion in aid and credits to finance the shutdown. But Ukrainian ministers complain the West has failed to grasp the extent of the problem, and has released no funds to start the shutdown.

The problem of financing repairs and a shut-down will be tackled at the up-coming summit in Moscow. Before that, another international conference on Chernobyl is to be held next week in Vienna, this time focusing on the human and environmental cost of the disaster.

Ukraine and Belarus claim thousands have died as a result of the accident, and that radiation-related cancer is still on the increase. Experts say it is still too early to draw such conclusions, and note that fall-out related cancer historically does not exhibit a marked increase until at least a decade after exposure. But researchers have coined the phrase "Chernobyl syndrome," to describe a growing sense of despair among radiation victims. According to Kyiv, 3.2-million people were affected by the disaster, almost a million of whom were children.