Chernobyl's continuing legacy

The plant's shutdown could cost billions and cause a power shortage. But there is a silver lining.

Since 1986, the name Chernobyl has become synonymous with disaster.

And when the world's most notorious nuclear power station -known as Chornobyl since Ukraine became independent with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union - finally shuts down six months from now, thousands of plant workers will lose their jobs and Ukraine's fraying energy grid will be strapped.

But here in Slavutych, the town that houses most Chernobyl workers, the mood isn't as grim as you might think.

It turns out that when the last reactor is switched off on Dec. 15, a whole new industry will be born. Decommissioning the station is expected to cost as much as $2 billion and occupy an army of skilled workers for decades.

"You don't just shut down one of these things and walk away," says Riaz Awan, a project manager for the US Department of Energy, which has just invested $22 million in a new heating system to keep the vast Chernobyl complex warm after its own power source goes out.

"There is a vast array of tasks to be performed on an indefinite basis," he says.

Lingering questions

Shutting down and cleaning up here will be an expensive nightmare, in part because of the 1986 accident. But experts say the problem of safely decommissioning atomic plants that have reached the end of their useful life is going to be a costly and vexing enterprise for every country that constructed them, including the United States.

"When these stations were being built, 30 or 40 years ago, no one was calculating what it would cost to close them. But it could turn out to be more than building them in the first place," says Valery Seyda, project manager at the International Chornobyl Center in Slavutych, the government-funded body that is overseeing the plant's decommissioning. "Some of the problems, such as how to permanently dispose of the spent fuel, have yet to be solved."

Fourteen years ago, unit No. 4 at Chernobyl exploded, spewing radioactive fallout over thousands of square miles of surrounding Ukrainian and Belarussian farmland. The nearby city of Pripyat became an uninhabitable wasteland and the then-Soviet Union mobilized its resources to build a new dormitory town, Slavutych, on a safe patch of ground 40 miles away.

Despite the accident, Soviet authorities wanted to keep the station's three undamaged reactors producing until the end of their service life in 2008. But persistent appeals from the international community led Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma to agree to closure by the end of this year.

In return, Ukraine is demanding that the West provide as much as $1.2 billion in financing for two new nuclear reactors, to make up for the nearly 6 percent shortfall in power once generated by Chernobyl. The new reactors will be Russian-made pressurized water types, considered safer than the graphite-moderated model used at Chernobyl.

Volodymyr Bronnikov, the director of Ukraine's nuclear energy program, estimates the safe decommissioning of Chernobyl's closed units will cost an additional $900 million. Most of this, too, will have to be paid for by the international community.

"Ukraine simply doesn't have this money," says Mr. Bronnikov. "We are completely unprepared to face this financial challenge."

Complex operations

When Chernobyl closes in December, the entire workforce of 2,300 will be laid off. But as many as 1,500 employees can expect to be rehired to work on the reactor shutdown, a complex series of operations expected to last about eight years, as the units are defuelled and cooled off under carefully controlled conditions.

Some of the workers will build and later operate two large processing facilities, designed to handle hundreds of tons of liquid and solid wastes, including the plant's spent fuel stores, contaminated machinery, and even irradiated parts of the buildings.

The full decommissioning operation is projected to take about 60 years. "I have worked at Chernobyl for 20 years, and I expect to be there the rest of my life," says Sergei Sharshun, the plant's deputy director. "I'm a nuclear engineer, and I feel sorry my future work won't be productive. I love the feeling of generating power for the country. But at least there will always be work."

The ongoing price of managing the 1986 accident's consequences must also be considered. A huge concrete sarcophagus covering the stricken No. 4 reactor will cost $780 million over the next few years alone, just to keep the boiling radioactive mess beneath it under control.

No one has even tried to estimate the costs of cleaning up and repopulating the 18-mile exclusion zone created around the plant after the 1986 disaster.

"It's impossible to calculate the costs of the Chernobyl tragedy because they keep growing year by year," says Alexander Borovoy, a Chernobyl expert at the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow, the former Soviet Union's main nuclear research arm.

"Since the contamination will last for thousands of years, somebody will probably have the job of dealing with it for at least that long."

That is, if the money materializes.

During a brief stop in Kyiv on June 5, President Clinton pledged $78 million in fresh funds for shutting down Chernobyl and $2 million to beef up safety at other Ukrainian nuclear plants.

Experts say the international community has so far offered a total of about $500 million to decommission Chernobyl, far short of the sum that will be needed.

"The big fear on everyone's mind here is that once we close down Chernobyl, the world will breathe a sigh of relief and forget about it," says Mr. Sharshun. "If the financing dries up, we'll be looking at real trouble."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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