Chernobyl Churns Out Controversial Power

Despite international safety warnings, Ukraine continues to operate unsafe nuclear reactors

NESTLED in a forest not far from the Chernobyl nuclear-power station, the Ukrainian town of Poliske is a picture of paradox.

The people who live there are loath to give up their hometown, but many live out of suitcases in hopes they will be next to leave. They are told the meat and vegetables they cultivate are poisonous, but not to eat them means going hungry.

Some seven kilometers from the town, the edge of the restricted 30-kilometer zone surrounding Chernobyl begins, demarcated with red gates and armed guards.

Eight years ago today, the station's fourth reactor malfunctioned, spewing a cloud of radiation across Europe in the world's worst nuclear disaster.

In the center of the zone, the plant's two working reactors industriously churn out electricity, deaf to the growing dismay of the world community and even more oblivious to the people living in its shadow.

``Can we live here or can't we? Is it safe or not? They tell us we have to go, but they don't give us any place to move,'' says Maria Kirilenko, as she hitches two sturdy workhorses to a hay cart.

Her village, Dibrova, has the ignominious honor of being located half inside and half outside of the 30-kilometer zone. It is slowly dying as resettlement, which started only two years ago, leaves houses empty and windows boarded up.

``They tell us all the time we shouldn't keep cows or pigs or eat the eggs our chickens lay. But there's nothing in the store but bread. If we didn't keep a garden, we would starve,'' she says.

Amazingly, the fields of Dibrova's collective farm continue to be tilled. Some of the produce is even sold to the state on order, the residents there say.

The long-term consequences of the accident of April 26, 1986 in Soviet Ukraine are still unclear.

Official Kiev claims that 8,000 people have died as a result of the accident, although international health organizations recognize a smaller figure. Twelve percent of the state budget is earmarked for dealing with the aftermath.

Some 130,000 have been evacuated or resettled from the area around Chernobyl, but another 14,000, including those in Poliske, are waiting for the impoverished government to build them new homes.

Now independent, Ukraine has embraced the Chernobyl accident as a tragic symbol of Soviet callousness that has scarred the traditional ``breadbasket of Europe'' for centuries.

But the energy-poor country is unwilling to let go of the electricity Chernobyl still produces, despite warnings by outside experts that the plant is unsafe.

SHOCKING the world community, the Kiev parliament last year overturned a decision to close the Chernobyl plant by the end of 1993, citing desperate energy shortages. Five nuclear power plants produce about 30 percent of Ukraine's electricity needs.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which hosted an emergency conference on Chernobyl in Vienna last week, has issued a report saying the plant has ``numerous safety deficiencies.'' Of special concern to experts is the design of the reactors working at Chernobyl, which along with human error is considered responsible for the fire and blast that contaminated vast stretches of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia.

Another worrying factor is the tracework of cracks in the slate-colored concrete ``sarcophagus'' that encloses the ruined reactor. The IAEA report said it was disintegrating much faster than expected, and Ukrainian officials conceded that a leak of radioactive dust is a possibility.

Ukraine held an international tender last year to find a builder to replace the covering, but so far no action has been taken to initiate construction, and it is not clear who will pay for the massive project.

An exodus of nuclear personnel looking for better pay - Chernobyl's director left this month for a job at a Russian plant -

also increases the safety risk, the IAEA report said.

Figures issued by the nuclear-safety inspectorate showed that mishaps at Chernobyl ranking zero or one on a seven-point scale nearly tripled from six to 16 in 1993, compared with the year before. There were two incidents last week.

Unbowed by international pressure to close the plant, Ukrainian officials told the conference in Vienna last week that Ukraine could not afford to close down Chernobyl.

They said they needed a whopping $4 billion to pay for updating Chernobyl's working reactors, building a new covering for the ruined unit, and starting up new reactors to make up for energy deficiencies once Chernobyl is closed down.

In Kiev, the deputy head of Ukraine's nuclear-power authority said in an interview that the world community was good at giving orders about closing Chernobyl but had done nothing to make it economically feasible.

``They tell us: `close Chernobyl and then we'll compensate you.' We say: `give us the money and then we'll close it.' That's the whole conversation,'' Nur Nigmatullin says.

Ukraine's refusal to close the plant is a new source of concern to the outside world. But to Ukranians affected daily by the disaster's aftermath, it is simply another in a series of betrayals that began in 1986 and left them trusting no one.

Last autumn, an independent Russian scientist announced with great fanfare he had discovered that a hazardous radioactive element, americium, was leaching into groundwater from the reactor site at alarming speed.

Days later, Ukraine's Chernobyl Minister Heorgy Hotovchyts blasted the scientist at a news conference for ``crying wolf'' and unduly frightening the public with old news.

In the shadow of Chernobyl, deciding what to think or whom to believe is a daily exercise.

A 10-by-5-foot sign at the checkpoint on the way to Poliske warns visitors and reminds residents: ``Attention. You are entering a zone of increased background radiation. Be careful!''

esidents are told cesium dirties the earth and strontium fouls local milk and meat. But previously steady supplies of subsidized groceries from so-called ecologically clean areas have dried to a trickle.

No one under 18 is allowed into the 30-kilometer zone, but children play in the streets of villages just several hundred meters away from the area. Gathering berries and mushrooms is strictly discouraged by authorities in Poliske, whose name literally means ``about the forest.''

``We know the children shouldn't play in the dirt and sand or spend a lot of time outside. But how can we pen them indoors, when they want to play in the fresh air?'' asks Klavdia Sdobnyakov, director of Poliske's one remaining school.

Poliske's head radiologist, Valentyn Syvolap, says it is difficult to tie increasing numbers of health problems to radiation from the blast.

``We are doctors, not researchers,'' Dr. Syvolap says. ``Yes, children seem paler, sicker, more aggressive than before. But then we know that Ukraine's economy is getting worse and people can't afford to eat as well.

``There's also a lot of stress living here, knowing you're right under Chernobyl,'' he says.

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