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Ukraine: Chernobyl May Get Nuclear Waste Processor

Vienna, 21 April 1997 (RFE/RL) - Authorities in Kiev say that Ukraine proposes to build a nuclear waste treatment plant at Chernobyl possibly capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium on the site of the world's worst nuclear accident.

The processing plant would be similar to plants in France and the United Kingdom. It would be the first of its kind in the former Soviet Union or any of its former satellite satate. It would treat nuclear waste from Chernobyl 3, which is still in operation, and would be placed within an 18 kilometer exclusion zone established around the disaster site.

Officials in Ukraine suggest also that the plant might treat radioactive waste remaining from Chernobyl 4, the reactor that spun out of control and burned eleven years ago this week (April 26, 1986). Western nuclear experts discount that idea.

The Ukrainian nuclear authority said it hopes that an immense concrete sarcophagus that was erected over the destroyed reactor can be opened and its radioactive contents recycled. But David Kyd of the United Nations International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) in Vienna told our correspondent that such an operation would require international approval unlikely to be granted for so risky an endeavor. He said it also would demand a level of technology not yet available.

The French news agency (AFP) quotes Pavel Korchagin of Ukraine's Emergency Situations Ministry as saying the plant would cost the equivalent of $273 million and that Ukraine already has contributed $14.7 million to the project. He said Ukraine may appeal to other countries and organizations for help in raising the funds.

Even so, Korchagin said, the treatment plant's projected capacity will be insufficient to treat all of Chernoby's nuclear waste.

In the Chernobyl disaster, the worst recorded civilian atomic accident, plant workers conducting unauthorized tests lost control of the reactor. It exploded and burned, sending radioactive fallout across much of central, northern and western Europe. Once the immediate hazard was contained, workers built a massive concrete structure over the reactor's remains. The amount of radioactive dust and other materials that escaped is unknown. But Ukrainian officials estimate that 200,000 tons of radiocative materials remain encased within the sarcophagus.

But over the years, the structure has become cracked, porous and vulnerable. Interfax news agency recently quoted the plant's deputy director, Valery Kupnyi, as saying that the situation in the sarcophagus, "is still not completely under control."

In Kyiv tomorrow, Ukrainian authorities and experts from the G-7 Group of industrial nations and the European Union's Executive Commission are scheduled to enter a new round of talks on the final closing of the entire Chernobyl complex. As a condition for closing Chernobyl, Ukraine has demanded international funding to build nuclear plants to replace its generating capacity. A report commissioned, but not yet accepted, by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development suggests that the $1.2 billion proposal is economically infeasible.

As for Ukraine's idea of capturing weapons-grade plutonium from the nuclear-waste processing, the IAEA's David Kyd told our correspondent that the international nuclear community will be wary of any plans for an installation in Ukraine with the capacity to produce weapons grade plutonium.

Kyd said also that planning and building nuclear-waste processing plants is difficult. He said that Japan is working now on plans for one and is experiencing great difficulty. He said that this difficulty explains in part why countries are willing to incur the cost of shipping material to the United Kingdom or France for processing.