Washington, 19 November 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Ukraine and the United States will convene a conference in New York on Thursday that seeks to raise more than $300 million to help close down the damaged nuclear power station at Chornobyl.
In April 1986, the Chornobyl nuclear reactor complex became a synonym for catastrophe. An accident that destroyed one of the four reactors at the complex left 32 dead, dozens injured and thousands of hectares of land poisoned by radiation. The effects of the worst accident in the history of civilian nuclear power were felt in neighboring Belarus and Russia, Western Europe, Scandinavia and even North America.
Now, more than 11 years later, authorities say the stricken power plant still poses a grave danger. Ukraine has promised to completely close down the entire complex in the year 2000. But government officials say Ukraine cannot shut down Chornobyl without massive international assistance.
The New York conference aims to secure commitments from public and private sources to pay for an important phase of the Chornobyl project -- the building of a permanent containment structure for the damaged nuclear reactor.
At the time of the accident, Soviet authorities constructed a 20-story-high shelter of steel and concrete over the damaged reactor to contain the radioactive materials. At a briefing for the press in Washington this week, U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency Director John Holum said the containment vessel was built in great haste and under tremendously trying conditions.
He said that, because of weather, radiation, and "the character of the initial hurried construction, that shelter is in danger." Holum said parts of the containment structure are becoming increasingly unstable.
Holum said: "The stakes are very high. Over 90 percent of the radiation that was caused by the initial explosion is still inside the shelter, so there's a great risk of another accident. It wouldn't reach the same proportions as what happened in 1986, but it would still be very serious. There are grave humanitarian concerns."
The charge d'affaires at the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington, Volodomyr Belashov, says the containment structure, or sarcophagus as experts call it, is the most critical problem. He told reporters that the temporary shelter is "probably the most dangerous nuclear object right now in the world."
He said the temporary structure houses almost 200 tons of nuclear fuel, and Belashov says that building an ecologically safe system "is an unprecedented technological challenge to mankind, which requires the mobilization of financial and engineering resources of the whole world community."
The New York City conference is called the Chornobyl Shelter Pledging Conference. It was announced last summer when the seven leading industrial democracies and Russia held their economic summit in the United States.
U.S. Vice President Al Gore and Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma will attend the conference as honorary co-chairmen. Gore's national security adviser, Leon Fuerth, told the press briefing that Washington views the pledging conference, "as an important step forward in our efforts to support President Kuchma's decision to close Chornobyl by the year 2000."
With the promise of international assistance, Ukraine signed an agreement with the Group of Seven in 1995 to close down Chornobyl. Fuerth says the Group of Seven has mobilized $1.6 billion dollars for Ukraine for energy investments, nuclear safety, power sector reform, and to help Ukraine develop a plan for managing the loss of jobs and other social impacts resulting from the close of Chornobyl's three remaining operating reactors.
The estimated cost of building the containment structure is $760 million. The Group of Seven has pledged 300 million and Ukraine has promised 150 million. Officials stressed, however, that they don't expect to raise all of the needed money on Thursday. Holum said the effort to secure Chornobyl will take years to finish, and he said the fund-raising will continue until that work is complete.
Fuerth said that dealing with the aftermath of Chornobyl is "a huge internal problem for Ukraine, bleeding it of every sort of resource that could normally be used in the institution building that is so necessary for a country at that stage."
He said that as much as 12 percent of Ukraine's national budget has been devoted to Chornobyl-related needs, including social and medical costs. Fuerth said that resolving the problems created by Chornobyl is crucial to Ukraine's ability to complete its transformation.
Said Fuerth: "If Ukraine can put the huge demands of dealing with Chornobyl behind it, its ability to play a positive role in securing the stability and prosperity of the region as a whole will be increased."