Officials at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development say they expect soon to formalize their agreement with Ukraine on the design of a new protective shelter for the Chornobyl nuclear power plant -- site of the world's worst civilian nuclear accident, in 1986. Preliminary steps toward the decommissioning of Soviet-designed nuclear reactors in Lithuania and Bulgaria also have been taken this month. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz spoke with senior EBRD officials in London who are involved in financing the projects.
London, 25 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Jean Lemierre, the president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, says he expects a formal agreement on the design of a confinement shelter for the Chornobyl nuclear power plant to be signed in the very near future with authorities in Kyiv.
Ukraine's state-owned nuclear energy firm, Energoatom, gave informal approval to technical plans for the structure earlier this month. The EBRD is charged with releasing the finances for the project out of a fund from international donors who are helping Ukraine build an arched structure over unit four of the Chornobyl plant.
Lemierre described the latest developments on the safety program for Chornobyl yesterday at the conclusion of the EBRD's annual board meeting in London:
"There was a technical commission [including international nuclear experts, engineers and nuclear energy officials] in Ukraine about the building of a shelter over Chernobyl. There have been technical discussions about what would be the best technique and the best technical approach. It was a question of engineers -- how to do it. I understand that much progress has been made and that a decision, if it is not totally met, is very close to being met. The process is going on very well."
Once the technical plans for the project are formally approved in Kyiv, an international public tender is to be launched to determine the builders of the shelter.
Ukraine built a concrete and steel shelter around unit four of the Chornobyl plant after a fire and explosion there in 1986 released hazardous radiation across parts of Ukraine, Belarus, and areas further north and east. But that protective shell is beginning to crumble.
Joachim Jahnke, the EBRD vice president in charge of the bank's Nuclear Safety Account, says emergency repairs have been completed to support the original shelter in the short term. But he told RFE/RL that the existing shelter will deteriorate further if it isn't protected from the weather.
Jahnke says that with up to 90 percent of the radioactivity from unit four still encased inside the concrete shell, its collapse would release a fresh cloud of radioactive dust into the atmosphere. There also are concerns, he says, that rain leaking through cracks in the concrete could cause radioactive waste to seep into the ground water table and pollute the drinking water supply for the entire region of Kyiv.
"What [radioactive material that] is still there [inside unit four] is in a risky situation because the present shelter building was built in a hurry. It's decaying. It is rusting. You see it when you come close. And there is water dripping into it, and there is a risk of ground water contamination. The whole area of Kyiv, with many millions of people, take their drinking water from the same water [linked to the underground water tables]."
The design that has been informally agreed upon by Energoatom and the EBRD's nuclear advisors is a massive metallic structure shaped like a Quonset hut -- 100 meters high, 120 meters long and spanning an area some 260 meters wide.
By building an arched structure with an interior space that is uninterrupted by columns or supports, the EBRD says there will be more versatility both to cope with the future dismantling of Chornobyl and to manage its nuclear waste. The Bank says the design also is the most structurally efficient and cost-effective way to enclose a large space.
The structure is to be erected in a relatively safe area away from the Chornobyl plant. The aim is to minimize radiation exposure to the workers who build it, as well as to avoid the hazards of construction work directly above the concrete shell around unit 4. Once assembled, the new confinement shelter would be moved along tracks into position over unit 4.
Other projects related to the decommissioning of Chornobyl also have been moving forward since Ukrainian officials shut down Chornobyl's last remaining operational reactor in December.
Unusually mild winter conditions in Ukraine have allowed construction to progress well on a storage building for more than 20,000 spent nuclear fuel rods. The building's foundation is now complete and above-ground construction is underway. Work on the storage modules also is progressing according to schedule. The building is due to be completed in 2003.
Another facility under construction is designed to treat and store the large amounts of radioactive liquid waste that was produced when the reactors at Chernobyl were still operating. Its foundations also are in place, and work on the walls and rooms of the main building has begun.
The EBRD-administered Nuclear Safety Account last month also approved disbursement of an additional three million euros (about $2.7 million) to build a railway network at the Chornobyl site. The railway will be used to transport spent nuclear fuel from existing storage areas to the one that is now being built. A contract for that project already has been awarded to the Ukrainian firm UkrTransBud. The railway is scheduled to be completed by the end of this year.
At the same time, funds are being established to help finance the decommissioning of nuclear reactors in Lithuania and Bulgaria. Earlier this month, the EBRD and Lithuania signed a framework agreement that establishes the legal basis for an international fund to operate in Lithuania to support the decommissioning of the Soviet-designed Ignalina nuclear power plant.
More than 200 million euros was pledged for the decommissioning of unit one at Ignalina at a donor's conference in Vilnius last year. About 165 million euros are to come directly from the European Union's budget, while 12 Nordic and West European countries also have pledged contributions. The money can be disbursed after Lithuania's parliament, the Seimas, approves the framework agreement with the EBRD.
A non-governmental monitoring group, CEE Bankwatch Network, has praised the progress made on Ignalina. But Bankwatch also has expressed concern about Ignalina's final decommissioning because Lithuania has not yet approved detailed measures for shutting down the oldest reactor there.
Bankwatch spokesman Petr Hlobil notes that some political parties in Lithuania are attempting to revise an agreement between Vilnius and the EU that would shut down Ignalina's unit one before 2005. The main complaint in Vilnius is that the shutdown should not be approved until enough funds are guaranteed to complete the entire decommissioning process.
Hlobil says the success of decommissioning unit one at Ignalina will serve as an example for the closure of aging Soviet nuclear units in other countries across the region.
The European Union and individual donor countries also are expected to contribute to a decommissioning fund for Bulgaria that also will be administered by the EBRD. Jahnke of the Bank's Nuclear Safety Account told RFE/RL that this fund is expected to start operating soon to help decommission the oldest reactors at Bulgaria's Kozloduy plant on the Danube River.
"[For] Kozloduy, I will have the chair[man] of the [Bulgarian] energy committee with me in a few days, and we will go through the same exercise [as with Ignalina's framework agreement]. We are interested to settle this now relatively early because there are deadlines coming in Bulgaria. You need time to prepare the decommissioning. You can't just switch off. We have also a lot of donor [interest] to help Bulgaria."
Unlike Ignalina in Lithuania and Chornobyl in Ukraine, where all nuclear reactors are being shut down or have been taken off-line, Bulgaria plans to continue operating two of its newest Soviet-designed reactors at Kozloduy.