Chornobyl shuts down as world watches
by Roman Woronowycz
Kyiv Press Bureau
KYIV - As representatives of the international community watched, President Leonid Kuchma gave the order on December 15 that shut down forever the third nuclear reactor at the Chornobyl power plant, effectively beginning the de-commissioning of the site of the world's worst nuclear accident.
"In accordance with a decision made by Ukraine and from agreements made with the world community, I direct that the No. 3 reactor at Chornobyl be shut down," Mr. Kuchma said at 1:16 p.m. Kyiv time, in ordering Vitalii Tolstonohov, the general director of the Chornobyl nuclear plant, to begin the shutdown operation.
President Kuchma and his guests then viewed the control room of reactor No. 3 via a live feed on a large monitor at the Ukraina Palace concert hall, while an engineer at Chornobyl threw the switch that halted the huge, atomically fueled, electricity-generating turbine.
In doing so, Ukraine fulfilled a promise it had made when it signed an agreement with the Group of Seven most industrialized countries in 1995 to do so in return for financial support for the development of compensatory energy-generating sources. As late as the beginning of December some doubt remained about whether Ukraine would follow through on its promise and whether the West was adhering to its part of the bargain. However, uncertainty diminished when the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development agreed to extend to Ukraine a $215 million loan to help with the completion of nuclear reactors near the cities of Khmelnytskyi and Rivne.
The momentous closing day - which Western leaders had awaited for a decade - was the culmination of a process that began on March 29, when the Ukrainian government announced it would begin final preparations to bring the power plant offline forever by the end of the year. Then on June 5, during a visit to Kyiv by U.S. President Bill Clinton, President Kuchma announced that the long-sought shutdown would take place on December 15.
During the 40-minute ceremony at the Ukraina Palace, President Kuchma said that for Ukraine the closing of Chornobyl is "of epochal importance."
"In doing so we are, first, paying tribute to the memory of those who died of the diseases caused by this catastrophe during their effort to eliminate the consequences of the disaster; second, we are confirming once more that we are fully committed to our obligations to the world; third, we are parting once and for all with totalitarianism; its tyranny, indifference and cruelty to human beings, society and nature," stated Mr. Kuchma.
The president cited statistics that tell the story of what the Chornobyl catastrophe has done to Ukraine and its development:
Ukraine could little afford loss of the energy generated by the last running reactor at Chornobyl, which supplies 5 percent of the country's electricity. The country is almost entirely dependent on Russia for its natural gas and oil needs, but with little financial means to pay for what it needs because of a decade-long economic plunge that has only recently leveled off - a fact the president emphasized.
"We realize that Chornobyl is a threat to the entire world and, consequently, we are ready to sacrifice a part of our national interest for the sake of global safety," explained Mr. Kuchma.
Meanwhile, members of the Ukrainian government, including Prime Minister Viktor Yuschenko, said it was time for the last working nuclear reactor to go.
"We have a working reactor basically separated by a wall from the one that was destroyed in the accident, we have to take such things into consideration," explained Mr. Yuschenko.
He was referring to the fact that the third reactor and the one that blew up are adjacent to one another and separated merely by a single long hallway.
The Verkhovna Rada, however, gave an indication on December 14 that someone had convinced a majority of national deputies that the third reactor could and should remain online when it passed a resolution calling on the president to keep the reactor going until April. The idea, as explained in the text of the draft bill, was to make sure that the money promised by the EBRD for Khmelnytskyi and Rivne would arrive and be utilized.
Mr. Yuschenko also told journalists before the closing ceremony began that, while the financial support provided by the world community thus far is sufficient, it would not be enough to cover all the Chornobyl-related expenses that would arise in the future.
"We can say that the money is there to complete the first stage, but future [Ukrainian] governments will have a serious job finding additional resources," said Prime Minister Yuschenko.
Ukraine had received financing from several sources in the last year to help prod it along on the path to its December 15 date with destiny. In addition to the $215 million Ukraine received from the EBRD on December 7, it had received another $100 million from the EBRD in mid-October to help purchase carbon fuels for energy generation to compensate for the electricity lost at Chornobyl. The European Commission added $27 million to that amount a few weeks later.
In addition, the international community had raised some $273 million in early July to meet 90 percent of the financial requirement to rebuild the sarcophagus over the destroyed fourth reactor block.
Mr. Yuschenko said Ukraine's decision to close the Chornobyl nuclear reactor was unprecedented and unique - comparable in international significance to its 1994 decision to give up its nuclear weapons arsenal, which at the time was the third largest in the world.
Few among the diplomats on hand for the ceremony would have argued. For most it was a day of acclaim and accolades. Pierre Cardin, the legendary fashion designer, who is currently the goodwill ambassador for UNESCO, said that the world could only thank Ukraine for its largesse in shutting down Chornobyl.
"It is a very, very big day for Ukraine, and for the world, too," said Mr. Cardin in the foyer of the Kyiv concert hall as foreign diplomats and Ukrainian politicians mingled awaiting the start of the ceremony.
Throughout the day President Kuchma received letters of congratulations from various state leaders, including the presidents of France, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Hungary and Israel, as well as the chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
President Clinton sent a greeting filmed on videotape in which he stated that "Today is a great day for Ukraine and for the world." Mr. Clinton applauded Ukraine for its "heroic" commitment "to fulfill its historic decision."
But not everybody was backslapping and hand-clasping on this historic day. Russian Energy Minister Yevgenii Adamov told reporters in Moscow, according to Interfax-Ukraine, that it was a bad move on Ukraine's part.
"I can't see any reason to celebrate this event. This event is akin to a funeral," said Mr. Adamov. He explained that Ukraine made the decision "too early, in a hurry and under pressure."
Although most of Europe and the world would disagree with him, those who depended on the plant for their jobs would not. President Kuchma went to visit those people and their families the day before the de-commissioning ceremony took place. He told the plant's workers and managers that he understands the bitter words he heard them speak during his daylong visit. However, he emphasized that in the end, he still considered it his responsibility to make the right decision to take the third reactor offline forever.
"No matter what the critics say, Chornobyl could not continue to operate until April without extensive and costly technical maintenance," explained Mr. Kuchma.
He said he would take the Chornobyl workers under his patronage and offered personal assurances that "no one will be left jobless or uncared for."
The Chornobyl shutdown came less than four months before the 15th anniversary of the explosion, which sent a huge plume of radioactivity into the atmosphere over Ukraine and Belarus, and on to northern Europe.
The accident, the result of a failed experiment to squeeze more energy production out of the reactor which occurred about 1 a.m. on April 26, 1986, not only exposed the dangers of nuclear energy in general, but the state of Soviet engineering as well as the regime's twisted policy of secrecy at all costs.
Even after the blast had scattered tons of nuclear materials in a 10-kilometer periphery and while uncontrolled flames continued to send radioactive smoke into the atmosphere for the next several days, the government kept absolutely mum and allowed for May Day parades and celebrations to proceed in the nearby city of Prypiat and in the capital city of Kyiv, about two hour's drive south of the plant.
It was not until a week later that the Soviet leadership admitted something had gone dangerously wrong at Chornobyl.
What went wrong and everything that still must be done to right it, will not end with the de-commissioning of Chornobyl. Experts say that the territory and the fields immediately surrounding the nuclear power complex are unusable and uninhabitable for at least several thousand years.
Even in the near future there are the problems associated with rebuilding the crumbling sarcophagus over the destroyed No. 4 reactor, which will cost $758 million, and the medical costs to treat the hundreds of thousands of current and future victims.
Just because the last working reactor is shut down does not mean that its nuclear fuel will no longer be a threat. Along with the 37 tons of melted nuclear materials and 63 tons of nuclear dust still contained within the sarcophagus, there is the matter of some 2,000 active nuclear fuel rods in the third reactor, which for technical reasons cannot be removed until 2008.
Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, December 24, 2000, No. 52, Vol. LXVIII
| Home Page |