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Ukraine: Ecologists, Analysts Puzzled By Russian Concern Over Chornobyl Safety

Russia's atomic energy minister yesterday warned Ukraine that the concrete-and-steel shell encasing the damaged Chornobyl nuclear reactor is in danger of collapsing. The official also expressed doubt that Ukraine was doing enough to monitor the site. What's behind Russia's concerns? RFE/RL reports.

Prague, 23 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Russian Atomic Energy Minister Aleksandr Rumyantsev said yesterday the decayed state of the sarcophagus surrounding the Chornobyl reactor is further threatened by Ukrainian officials who refuse to allow Russian specialists to examine the site.

Rumyantsev's comments came just days before the 17th anniversary of the Chornobyl disaster. On 26 April 1986, an explosion in the reactor spewed radiation across vast sections of Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Western Europe. It is still considered the world's worst civilian nuclear accident.

Volodymir Saprykin heads the energy program at the Kyiv-based Aleksandr Razumkov Ukrainian Center of Economic and Political Research. Saprykin told RFE/RL he considers Rumyantsev's statement misleading and embarrassing.

"In principle, it doesn't reflect reality," he said. "I think Aleksandr Rumyantsev's declaration is purely populist in nature and does not reflect the opinion of all Russian specialists. In principle, there are some problems in the construction of the sarcophagus, but I don't expect something catastrophic will happen. Some work is being done, and there are plans to control [the condition of] the sarcophagus, to change some parts of it. [But] there is nothing extraordinary happening there now."

The dome-shaped steel-and-concrete sarcophagus was built soon after the 1986 accident to cover the damaged reactor and halt the spread of radioactive particles into the atmosphere.

Saprykin said that in 1997, a so-called Shelter Implementation Plan was drafted with the participation of international experts. The $750 million program, funded by the European Union, the United States, and international lenders, provides for repair work on the shelter. The project is expected to be completed in 2008, with a new safety structure being built to guard the damaged reactor.

Saprykin said the project is just part of a long-term program of safety measures for the damaged reactor. "The work now under way consists of three phases. This year, efforts are being made to stabilize the existing [sarcophagus]. From 2003 to 2007, preliminary engineering work is planned. From 2007 until 2050, nuclear fuel will be taken out [of the reactor]," Saprykin said.

Saprykin said Russia has made no offers of financial help in dealing with Chornobyl. Moreover, he says Rumyantsev's offers of Russian expertise come with a hefty price tag.

"Russia is looking to have some kind of important role in dealing with the consequences of the Chornobyl accident," Saprykin said. "However, it's not supporting its declarations with financial aid. And Russian institutes want large sums of money [for their work]. They are rather expensive. Ukraine isn't able to pay that kind of money. The international community, [by contrast], gives money and does definite work."

Oleksandr Sushko is the director of the Center for Peace, Conversion, and Foreign Policy, a Kyiv-based think tank. He told RFE/RL that Russian concerns about Chornobyl's safety may be linked to the aims of Russian companies to take part in the privatization of Ukrainian energy firms -- something from which they are currently excluded.

"The Chornobyl nuclear-power plant can hardly interest anyone in an economic sense, because it isn't functioning," Sushko said. "I guess Russia may have some other interests. Russia may feel pushed aside from the process of privatizing Ukraine's electrical-power companies."

Sushko noted that Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma this week announced the privatization of Ukraine's Oblyenergo energy company should be completed in two years. Companies from Ukraine, the U.S., Slovakia, and Luxembourg -- but not Russia -- are all participating in the project. Rumyantsev's remarks, Sushko said, are a signal that Russian companies should also be let in on the deal.

Vladimir Chuprov is a nuclear energy specialist with Greenpeace Russia, an environmental group. He said he was puzzled to hear Rumyantsev suddenly discussing his concerns about a reactor in a neighboring state.

With Russia's own nuclear-power plants equipped with Chornobyl-style reactors, Chuprov said, the atomic energy minister should be focusing his attention on potential problems at home. The Greenpeace activist said Rumyantsev, who addressed his remarks to the Western press, was likely seeking to shift attention away from serious problems in Russia.

"[There is] the situation with the Chornobyl-type reactor now under construction at [Russia's] Kursk nuclear-power plant -- the fourth reactor at the plant," Chuprov said. "The [Russian government] does not have the money to guarantee the safety of the reactor, and the Atomic Energy Ministry is negotiating a loan with the European Commission in order to be able to introduce safety measures."

This and other domestic issues, Chuprov said, should be of greater concern for Rumyantsev and the Atomic Energy Ministry. At the same time, however, he said the damaged Chornobyl reactor does pose a significant risk.

"The fact that there is nearly a kilometer's worth of cracks [in the sarcophagus] is well-known," he said. "On the whole, the sarcophagus is not preventing radioactive elements from being discharged from the reactor. The sarcophagus does help somewhat, but not fully."

Chuprov said nobody seems certain what is going on inside the reactor itself. A year ago there were reports that the temperature was rising in the main reactor chamber, inside the sarcophagus -- signaling a potential danger over time.

Chuprov said the problem is how much plutonium and other radioactive particles are inside, and whether it would be enough to start and sustain a nuclear chain reaction. "One can only guess what's going on inside and what may happen," he said. "I repeat -- nobody knows how much plutonium was expelled" during the 1986 explosion, nor how much is left inside.

Despite doubts over Rumyantsev's motives in addressing the safety of the Chornobyl reactor, Chuprov said one thing is certain: The possibility that the sarcophagus may collapse increases every year.