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Ukraine: Public Hearings Held On Proposed Nuclear Plants

Kyiv, 4 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) is holding public hearings in Ukraine this Fall on a proposal to build two new nuclear power plants.

The hearings mark a new experience in Ukraine, and while most Ukrainians have taken no notice of them, some turned out at those held last week in Rivne, Neteshin and Kyiv. Most voiced strong criticism of the planned nuclear plants.

Proposals call for the building of the two nuclear power plants near Rivne and Khmelnitsky to replace the Chornobyl plant after its planned closure in the year 2000.

In a memorandum signed by the Ukrainian government and the G-7 countries in 1995, the G7 pledged to help Ukraine compensate for the electricity lost when Chornobyl shuts down. The G7 asked the EBRD to help finance the project, which will cost an estimated $1.720 billion.

An EBRD study initially concluded that rehabilitating Ukraine's existing thermal power plants would be more cost-effective. But under continued pressure from the G7, the EBRD eventually agreed to support the Khmelnitsky-Rivne project on condition that "due diligence procedures", including holding public hearings, are satisfied. The EBRD is considering loaning Energoatom $190 million toward the construction of the plants.

Along with the EBRD, the hearings are being organized by Energoatom, the state company that runs Ukraine's nuclear power facilities. Energoatom officials are to record and compile all of the comments and the EBRD's board of directors will make a decision.

A typical comment at the Kyiv hearing last Friday came from a woman (unnamed) with the environmental group Zeleny Svit (Green World), who said building the two plants would represent a "crime against Ukraine."

Ukrainian officials insist that the Khmelnitsky and Rivne reactors are the only option for replacing the Chornobyl plant, site in 1986 of the world's worst-ever commercial nuclear accident. Although based on an old Soviet-design, the two new planned reactors are a different type than those at Chornobyl.

Opponents of the project are hoping that an overwhelmingly negative response at the public hearings will sway the EBRD board against the loan. In Kyiv, environmental activists, politicians, scientists and ordinary citizens queued up to put their questions to a panel from Energoatom and a group of Western experts who have authored reports on the project.

Many participants were skeptical about the need to replace Chornobyl at all, arguing that Ukraine already has an excess of generating capacity. Fred Depenbrock from the U.S.-based consultancy Stone and Webster, said that was true only if one assumed power plants always run at top capacity.

Another participant asked Energoatom how the company intended to pay back the EBRD loan. Energoatom construction manager Gennady Sazanov admitted that Energoatom collects only 4.5 percent of energy payments in cash. He said Energoatom intends to send the EBRD a report next month showing how the new reactors will be profitable enough to repay the loan.

William Franks, the EBRD banker responsible for the project evaluation process, said he was satisfied with the hearings. He said "There was a lot of comment, people had the opportunity to really pour out their hearts, and their comments will be assessed."

He said the EBRD's main concern is that the proposed project be open to public review and comment. A final report, outlining all questions and how they have been answered, will be submitted to the EBRD board of directors along with the environmental action plan before the bank will reach any decision. Franks said the EBRD is "striving very hard to come to a board recommendation next year".

At a recent EU summit, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma called the EBRD loan an 'obligation' and expressed irritation at the bank's delay in making a loan decision. On several occasions Kuchma has said that Ukraine may go ahead with the two plants without Western financing.