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Ukraine: Not Everyone Overjoyed By Chornobyl Shutdown

Ukraine celebrated the closure of the Chornobyl nuclear power plant on Friday (Dec. 15) with speeches and concerts. But not everyone in the country is so enthusiastic about closing the plant down. RFE/RL Kyiv correspondent Lily Hyde reports:

Kyiv, 18 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Oleksandr Konoplyov received a telegram on April 26, 1986, where he was working in Russia at a training center for nuclear specialists. It told him there had been an accident that day at Chornobyl and he had to go there right away to assist in the clean-up.

He recalls later flying in a helicopter over a forest near the stricken power station looking for the highly trained staff. He says they were fleeing like madmen.

Despite that experience, Konoplyov says he will greet the closure of the Chornobyl plant with tears. As a top energy specialist, he is still called out of retirement whenever one of Ukraine's reactors malfunction.

It happens frequently. Two reactors had to be taken off-line for emergency repairs just as Chornobyl closes, making fears about Ukraine's energy system without Chornobyl yet more acute.

Konoplyov says nuclear workers around Ukraine will mourn December 15 like a funeral. He considers the level of expertise so high at Chornobyl that it is one of the safest stations in the world, despite the admitted faults of its design.

"I don't agree with the closure of Chornobyl in general, and especially in winter, which may not be so mild. This type of reactor is very economical. We won't give up what's ours, we won't bury what's alive. That, I'd say, is the proper response of an energy specialist.

To most of the world, Chornobyl, or rather Chernobyl, stands simply for disaster. But Ukrainians have a more complex attitude toward the most famous nuclear power station in the world.

For some, it took away their health; for others, it gave them a livelihood; for yet more, it made their career. Some see the accident, still the world's worst civilian nuclear disaster, as helping to bring down Soviet Union. Others say it helped to start the environmental movement.

President Leonid Kuchma, at a ceremony on Friday marking the closure, said Ukraine is "prepared to sacrifice part of its national interest for the sake of global safety." He underscored the loss to Ukraine's power-generating capacity, especially after a spell of adverse weather has left some of the country's villages without electricity.

Kuchma asked that the international community appreciate Ukraine's gesture, but writer Lyubov Kovalevskaya thinks Ukraine has left the decision too late to make a good impression. She tells RFE/RL:

"The station should have been closed long ago, when Ukraine returned its nuclear weapons to Russia. The next logical step would have been to close Chornobyl. It would have looked morally correct, if we are talking about image."

Chornobyl placed Kovalevskaya in the limelight. In 1986 she wrote an article for a Ukrainian newspaper concluding that a disaster at Chornobyl was inevitable. Exactly a month later, Chornobyl's fourth reactor exploded.

Since then, Kovalevskaya has been invited all over the world and hailed by the West as a symbol of free speech in a repressive system. In Ukraine, she is less popular, perhaps because she continues to be critical of the government. She was not invited to the Ukraine Palace, where Kuchma gave his speech, and she spurns the gala concert organized by the Green party to mark the event.

Most critics of the shutdown accept that it was a political decision, rather than motivated by ecological or economic concerns. The highly radioactive material inside the crumbling shelter over the destroyed reactor four still remains. Many Ukrainians are worried that, with the station now closed, the world will forget about the ongoing ecological problems, and the ill-health of millions of Ukrainians who continue to suffer 14 years after the accident.