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Ukraine: Chornobyl Closure Means Search For Storage Sites, New Energy

After more than a decade of delay, the Chornobyl nuclear power plant is now scheduled to be shut down at the end of the year. RFE/RL's Tuck Wesolowsky looks at the problem of disposing of Chornobyl's waste, and at Ukraine's options for replacing lost energy.

Prague, 7 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- As expected, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma announced this past Monday that the final nuclear reactor at Chornobyl will be shut down once and for all on December 15.

Kuchma made the much-anticipated statement in Kyiv during a six-hour visit to the Ukrainian capital by U.S. President Bill Clinton. The U.S. has been one of several countries appealing to Ukraine for years to decommission Chornobyl.

The nuclear plant was the site of the world's worst civilian nuclear disaster, when reactor number four exploded on April 26, 1986, spewing radioactive fallout across Europe. Although most of the fallout fell on neighboring Belarus, radiation was detected as far away as Japan. Today, only reactor number three is in operation. Number two was shut down in 1991, and number one five years later.

Mils Bohmer is a nuclear physicist working for Bellona, a nuclear-monitoring organization based in Oslo, Norway. He says it was the fading likelihood of more Western aid to upgrade Ukraine's rickety energy infrastructure, coupled with growing problems at Chornobyl, that prompted Kuchma to act now.

"One of the main reasons is there have been a lot of technical problems with the Chornobyl reactor; the latest since Christmas the remaining reactor has been up and go every other week and stopped again because of technical problems. So I think that this is the main reason for accepting to close down the remaining Chornobyl reactor."

While welcoming the closure announcement, Bohmer notes there are still 10 RBMK reactors -- the same outdated Soviet model found at Chornobyl -- in operation in Russia and Lithuania.

Tobias Munchmeyer is an anti-nuclear campaigner with Greenpeace. He says shutting down the sole operating nuclear reactor at Chornobyl should be relatively problem-free. The most pressing matter now, Munchmeyer says, is finding storage for the spent fuel and other radioactive waste inside reactor number three.

"Another phase is starting, this is to decommission the reactor because the reactor contains, of course, the spent nuclear fuel, but also tons of light-, medium-, and high-radiated nuclear waste, and this has to be decommissioned to be stored somewhere and this is work for the next few years. The financing for this decommissioning work has been given by G-7 countries."

During his visit, Clinton pledged $78 million to rebuild the sarcophagus entombing the crippled number four reactor. Next month in Berlin, donors from 40 nations are expected to announced they have secured the needed $700 million to rebuild the concrete encasement, which was built in haste following the 1986 accident, and now has several cracks.

During Clinton's visit to Kyiv, no mention was made of a project that has drawn criticism from environmentalists -- the building of two new nuclear reactors, at Khmelnitsky and Rivne, known as K-Two/R-Four. Ukraine has said the two reactors -- about 80 percent finished -- are needed to compensate for the energy lost from shutting down Chornobyl.

But there is growing Western reluctance to fund the project, led by Germany, Austria, and Sweden, which have offered to fund non-nuclear alternatives.

Emmanuel Bergasse is an expert in transition economies at the Paris-based International Energy Agency, IEA, an international energy forum linked with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. He says Ukraine is now at a crossroads in deciding how to meet its future energy needs.

"Basically, the Ukrainian government is facing a dilemma, which is a choice between three main fuels. The first one is expensive and environmentally polluting, domestic coal, but the reform program of the present government calls for less aid to the coal sector. The second alternative is to put more emphasis on environmentally friendly gas -- but, as you know, gas is imported at quite high cost from Russia and other CIS states, and further increases in gas imports would increase Ukraine's dependence on its powerful neighbor. Furthermore, as you know, Ukraine already has a huge gas debt towards Russia. The third alternative is nuclear power, which is relatively cheap but controversial both at home and abroad, and which also would increase the country's dependence on Russia for securing nuclear fuel."

Munchmeyer, Bergasse, and other energy experts say it is doubtful whether Ukraine really needs to build any new energy plants. Instead, Ukraine could meet its energy needs by better energy usage. Munchmeyer explains:

"The energy problem existing in Ukraine is a fuel problem and is an inefficiency problem. So on the one side there is a lack of fuel and there is a lack of organizing to get the fuel into the right places at the same time. The other thing is this huge inefficiency of the energy system. Ukraine is using five to eight times more electricity for producing goods compared to Western Europe."

Wasting energy is endemic throughout the countries of the former East Bloc. The IEA's Bergasse says one of the main causes of poor energy efficiency is the high subsidies paid for energy purchases. He says a 1999 IEA study of 10 countries with heavy energy subsidies -- including Russia and Kazakhstan -- showed there is no incentive for saving energy whenever energy is subsidized or sold below cost of production.

"The non-payment problem which is pervasive throughout the CIS, although improving of late, is another form of energy subsidy. So we calculated that the energy savings potential of Russia alone is so enormous, that if subsidies were abolished in Russia, Russia could save about twice the energy which Ukraine consumes today alone."

Bergasse says remodeling the energy sector is intertwined with more overarching reforms. He says the three Baltic states have come the furthest in cutting energy waste, partly because they have better defined property rights. Baltic homeowners, Bergasse says, feel more secure in making the investment to upgrade their home energy efficiency. Countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States are still lagging behind in this regard.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.