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Monday, 5 June, 2000, 19:09 GMT 20:09 UK
Chernobyl closure saga
Chernobyl reactor
The ventilation chimney is no longer at risk of collapse
By BBC News Online's Stephen Mulvey

Ukraine's pledge to close the Chernobyl reactor comes after years of wrangling about the details of a compensation package to be provided by Western governments.

Under the terms of a Memorandum of Understanding signed in December 1995 by Ukraine and the G7 group of the world's richest countries, the notorious nuclear plant was to have been closed by the end of the last century.

But misunderstandings quickly arose about what the G7 would do for Ukraine in return - and they have not yet been fully resolved.

Ukraine failed to close the plant by the deadline at the end of 1999, and threatened to continue operation until the end of the plant's natural life in several years' time. However, the closure pledge given by Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma in the presence of Bill Clinton is reported to be unconditional.

More reactors

In the 1995 memorandum the G7 countries promised a package of aid to Ukraine, in grants and loans, worth a total of about $3bn.

Kuchma and Clinton
Mr Kuchma's pledge is unconditional
The biggest item on a list of projects, designed to fully restructure the country's energy sector and to compensate for generating capacity lost at Chernobyl, was the completion of two unfinished nuclear reactors at Khmelnitsky and Rovno.

But by early 1997 the prospective donors had received a report from an international group of experts, which said that this was not the cheapest and most efficient way of providing Ukraine with the energy it needed.

Other problems also began to dog the project, such as Ukraine's failure to restructure its energy sector along market lines, or deal with the problem of non-payment of bills.

For countries supposed to fund construction with a $1bn loan this is a serious obstacle - because until power generation in Ukraine begins to bring profits they stand little chance of getting their money back.

Another problem was the rise to power in Germany, one of the prospective funding nations, of a coalition government involving the Green Party which is thoroughly hostile to nuclear power.

Shelter stabilisation

Western officials who tried to tell Ukraine that the Memorandum of Understanding specified that projects would only be funded if they were cost-efficient were greeted with distrust and disbelief.

They thought they had been given a promise that the reactors would be built.

It is still not clear whether the two new reactors will in the end be constructed, or if so, who will provide the loan.

Another key element of the Chernobyl closure compensation package - work to make safe the shelter around the stricken fourth reactor - has gone more smoothly.

An unstable chimney towering above the reactor was stabilised in 1998. Some of the beams inside the shelter were reinforced in 1999.

Prospects

A large amount of investigative work has also been undertaken, which will help in future phases of the project.

As of January 2000 the European Union and 25 other countries had committed 395m of the $768m that the work on the shelter is expected to cost.

The rest of the money is still being sought.

Among the next steps planned are efforts to limit the contamination that would result - because of earthquake, accident or extreme weather - if the shelter were to collapse.

Once the project has been completed, in 2005, it is envisaged that the sarcophagus will remain safe for another 50 to 100 years.

By this time the outlines of this solution should also have been sketched.

Ideas proposed so far include constructing a hermetically sealed dome over the existing plant, or, more ambitiously, removing the radioactive debris and returning Chernobyl to a green field site.

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See also:

02 Dec 99 | Europe
Chernobyl closed again after leak
29 Mar 00 | Europe
Chernobyl closure plan
07 Mar 99 | Europe
Chernobyl reopens
10 May 00 | Sci/Tech
Chernobyl's effects linger on
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