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Ukraine: Closing Chernobyl Is No Easy Task

By Michael Mihalisko and Robert Lyle

Washington, 14 February 1997 (RFE/RL) - The working group of nuclear safety experts from the G-7 major industrial nations met with Ukrainian officials in Washington this week and both agreed they are making progress in the plan to shut down the Chernobyl nuclear power plant by the turn of the century.

But there were ripples from a yet-to-be-released report questioning the economic sense of the G-7 plan to help Ukraine close the Chernobyl plant and finance completion of two other more modern nuclear power plants to replace the resulting lost electricity.

The report, commissioned by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), recommends that instead of helping Ukraine complete the Khmelnytsky and Rivne nuclear power plants, western financing be used for an "alternative package" of energy measures.

The chairman of the group which wrote the report, University of Sussex, England, professor John Surrey, said in a letter to the "Financial Times" newspaper Thursday that Ukraine has no urgent need for new generating capacity to replace any lost by closing Chernobyl.

"Ukraine currently has about 85 percent surplus generating capacity over winter peak demand," he wrote. "No new generating capacity is needed for many years. What the Ukrainians are short of is cash to buy fuel for their existing plant."

What's more, wrote Surrey, resuming construction on the two new nuclear plants would not make a contribution to Ukraine's electricity supply for more than three years.

Ukraine's Minister of Environmental Protection and Nuclear Safety, Yuri Kostenko, calls the report "absolutely incorrect" and warns that if the G-7 countries balk at providing credits to complete the two power plants, Kyiv would have to take "a political decision" to "correct" the planned closing of the Chernobyl plant in the year 2000. It is not the first time Ukrainian officials have threatened to push the closing date back if adequate western financial assistance is not forthcoming.

He told U.S. congressional leaders and staff members at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington Thursday that Ukraine gets over 36 percent of its electric power from nuclear plants, buying over two-thirds of its nuclear fuel from Russia this year under the Tri-lateral accords on de-nuclearization.

Conventional power plants are no simple answer, Kostenko added, because Ukraine can provide only 44 percent of its energy needs from its own primary fuel resources. In 1995, he said, Kyiv imported nearly 20 percent of the coal, 77 percent of the oil and 78 percent of the gas it used. Because consumers were able to pay for only 60 percent of the energy consumed, Kostenko said, energy industries are in a "catastrophic" situation.

The report, although not yet publically released, was discussed in the Tuesday meeting between the G-7 nuclear safety working group and the Ukrainian delegation led by Kostenko. In addition to loans for the two new plants, discussion included the need for a new energy transmission project.

The Ukrainian embassy in Washington issued a statment expressing hope that the final touches on a loan package from the EBRD to complete the Rivne and Khmelnytsky plants would be worked out at the next meeting of the G-7 group in Kyiv in the spring.

The G-7 group deals with the technical aspects of the program, but the EBRD and other financial sources also participate.

A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told RFE/RL that the question of where the money is to come from to pay for closing Chernobyl and helping Ukraine have the power it needs, remains at the center of the discussions.

"There are really two families of issues which will continue for a long time," the official told our correspondent. He said one is the financing and the other the technical steps needed to make the contaminated Chernobyl plant environmentally stable.

One of the plant's four nuclear reactor power-generating units exploded and burned in 1986 in the world's worst nuclear disaster. The destroyed unit was encased in a steel-reinforced concrete sarcophagus, but that shell is cracking and there is concern about future environmental contamination.

Two power units are still being used alternately to generate electricity at the Chernobyl plant, but the western nations are anxious to shut down the entire facility -- along with 26 other similar first generation Soviet-built pressurized water reactors which continue to operate throughout the former Soviet Union and central Europe.

Western experts have said the Chernobyl type reactors are outdated and dangerous, but the U.S. official says dealing with the technical and scientific issues is enormously complex and is an "on-going process" that won't end any time soon.

There was agreement in the G-7-Ukraine meeting, for example, on further steps toward making the sarcophagus environmentally secure, partly by starting this year to remove fissionable materials still in the destroyed unit. Other steps to be taken in 1997 toward shutting down the remaining units at Chernobyl were also discussed, he said.

The U.S. officials says that overall, the atmosphere in the discussions is "cordial and productive" and the parties are "working together, making things happen." But there will be no sudden "solutions" or "conclusions," he cautioned. Only continuing work for many years to come.