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Ukraine: A New Town Depends On Chernobyl's Fate

Slavutych, Ukraine, 19 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Slavutych is a town unlike any other in Ukraine. Rows of pretty cottages and bungalows nestle among neat gardens; the lawns are trimmed, the streets swept.

Each day, the pavements are thronged with well-dressed and bright-faced children on their way to and from school. There are so many of them, they have to attend lessons in shifts. Over one-third of Slavutych's 26,000 inhabitants are children.

Their pleasant homes and playgrounds are located just 40 kilometers from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Their parents travel through exclusion-zone check-points everyday as they go to work at the plant and undergo the daily rituals of showering and changing to remove radiation before they can return.

For the rest of Ukraine, and the world, the name Chernobyl is synonymous with disaster. Not so in Slavutych. For the town's inhabitants, the plant provided a standard of living and confidence in the future rare even before the Soviet Union's collapse.

But since then the West has demanded that Chernobyl be closed down by 2000, and that date is casting a longer shadow over Slavutych than the 1986 nuclear explosion ever did.

"If the station closes, where are we going to work?" asked Slavutych resident Lydia Malysheva.

Slavutych is younger than a good many of its young inhabitants. Work to build it began only in 1987 to replace Pripyat, which had been completed only 16 years earlier to house Chernobyl workers and was rendered uninhabitable by the accident at the plant.

The entire Soviet Union collaborated in building Slavutych, located just outside the exclusion zone in the middle of a forest long famous for mushrooms. Each of the town's blocks was built by a different republic in its national style, creating a low-rise and cozy town.

Many former Pripyat inhabitants, such as Malysheva, moved to Slavutych, recreating the community they had lost when they were evacuated in 1986 to Kyiv and other towns all over Ukraine.

"There's the same atmosphere as there was in Pripyat," said Malysheva. "If I hadn't lived in Pripyat for 11 years, maybe I would have decided to stay in Kyiv. But when I knew that a new town was being built for us, the sufferers, there was nothing to think about, we had to come here. And we were not mistaken."

Malysheva even re-established a social organization called the Red Carnation, which she and her colleagues had set up originally in Pripyat, building a small museum collection and running children's clubs.

Slavutych attracted workers from all over the Soviet Union, drawn by promises of good pay.

Marina Davidko moved from Krasnoyarsk in Russia with her husband and young son in 1988. "Life was wonderful here at that time," she said. "We were given a flat straight away, we were provided with good jobs. Conditions in Slavutych were better than in any other town in the Soviet Union." Marina had a daughter in 1990. "I was the happiest woman in the world," she said. "I had everything."

These days, the outlook is not so positive. For the first time ever, Chernobyl workers took part in demonstrations over back wages in Kyiv this month. Workers have only just got their salaries for August and are still waiting for June and July.

The nuclear plant, which provides 12,000 jobs, has already begun to lay off workers, boosting Slavutych's unemployment rate to six percent.

Mayor Volodymir Udovychenko expects the jobless rate to jump to 16 percent by the beginning of 1999. Udovychenko says that many inhabitants have not really grasped how critical the situation is. "They don't believe the plant will be shut down," he said.

Chernobyl has been in the process of shutting down since 1990. Ukraine has officially agreed to closure by 2000 but continues to bicker with the West over the terms of the agreement. In return for decommissioning Chernobyl, Ukraine wants funding for two new reactors, unemployment benefits for laid-off Chernobyl workers, and help in rebuilding the shelter covering the plant's destroyed fourth reactor. The West has yet to agree to those terms.

Many Slavutych residents, including the mayor, say Chernobyl is being made a scapegoat. They point out that there are 12 of the same type of Soviet-built reactors still operating in Russia and Lithuania.

"If we lived in a wealthy country in Europe, maybe we too would demand the closure of the station," said Viktor Kapusta, editor of a local magazine called Lights of Slavutych. "But here, it means death."

Both foreign governments and the Ukrainian government have taken some steps to alleviate the crash when it comes. The U.S. Department of Energy helped set up, first, the Chernobyl Center for Nuclear Waste, Radioactive Waste and Radio-Ecology in Slavutych in 1996, then a research laboratory the following year. Both employ many locals, including Davidko. Slavutych has also established links with Richland, in the U.S. state of Washington, a town built around its Hanford plutonium-production center.

Recently, students from the two towns have visited one another under exchange programs. They also met in a video conference sponsored by Pacific Northwest National Laboratories, a U.S. Department of Energy agency.

Many of the foreigners involved in the Chernobyl Center say that the 30-kilometer exclusion zone itself is a rich resource for Slavutych . They believe that the zone can be developed to provide many jobs in the fields of radiation research. The decommissioning process will also employ workers for many years after 2000.

Meanwhile, Ukraine has declared Slavutych a "free economic zone." That means there is total tax exemption on investors' profits for two years and a 50 percent reduction over the next three years.

But Mayor Udovychenko can still count on one of his hands the job options open to Slavutych dwellers. The mood of the town remains gloomy. "I'm not going to leave Slavutych for any other place, and my children love it here," said Davidko. "But I don't want to think about the future right now."

There are signs that the community is already breaking down. Red Carnation has been housed in two cozy wooden cottages in the Estonia block since its transfer from Pripyat. Now its leaders have been told they have to move, but have not been given any new premises.

The uncertainty hanging over Malysheva and her colleagues typifies the dread of the future that hangs over the whole town. "This is a beautiful, green, warm town. It is good here," Malysheva said. "If it only had a future, we would have nothing more to wish for."