UKRAINE'S vow to close the Chernobyl nuclear plant by the year 2000 could mark the beginning of the end to an era of worry born nine years ago on April 26: The station's fourth reactor spewed a three-mile-high radioactive cloud into the atmosphere in history's worst atomic accident.
Ukraine is attaching a hefty price tag to closing Chernobyl. Uncertainty is growing that the plant -- which many experts see as a time bomb waiting to blow -- can be defused by the end of the century.
Low on energy resources and strapped for cash, the former Soviet republic of Ukraine is driving a hard bargain with the rich countries of the world.
In exchange for closing Chernobyl, Ukraine's government wants the Group of Seven (G-7), the world's major industrialized nations, to reach into their pockets for about $4 billion. That, Kiev says, is the price for a new power plant to replace Chernobyl and for a new ''sarcophagus'' to replace the cracking, hurriedly built ''tomb'' that now encases the station's ruined fourth reactor.
''Ukraine wants the station closed more than anyone else. If anything happened there again ... we'd get the worst of it,'' says Foreign Minister Hennady Udovenko. ''But closing Chernobyl will cost billions of dollars, and we're telling the West up front -- we can't close it on our own. Our position is, let's cooperate, let's close it together.''
President Leonid Kuchma's unprecedented announcement in mid-April, which finally put a fixed date on Chernobyl's closure, came during a visit from a delegation of the European Union at the height of an international campaign to close the plant.
No concrete figures were mentioned at the time, and Kiev's conditions and $4 billion demand, announced April 21, appear to have caught the West off guard.
''There was always a dichotomy, with Ukraine saying they need billions and billions of dollars and the West saying the process is not that expensive,'' says one Western diplomat in Kiev. ''Kuchma's announcement broke a logjam, because talks had come to a virtual deadlock. But there isn't $4 billion floating around out there, either.''
Deadlines, meanwhile, are cropping up. Serious talks are due to start at the G-7 June summit in Halifax, Canada, and Kuchma is hoping to press Ukraine's case at the meeting. Ukraine is already on a May 15 deadline from the EU to produce plans for closing the station, and Kiev officials say the West is due to draw up a financing schedule by July.
''A lot of questions still need to be answered. No one -- not us, not the Ukrainians, knows exactly how much this all is going to cost or what exactly is going to to built,'' said a member of the European Parliament on a recent visit to Kiev. ''But this sort of thing is very expensive. And there's no choice but to pay, is there, if we want the station closed?''
Chernobyl's closure is of special concern to Europe, which caught the lion's share of the radioactive cloud that rose from the fire and explosion at the station in 1986.
Clouds over Europe
Large swathes of Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus were made uninhabitable by contamination, and radioactive clouds drifted through much of Western Europe as well. Nearly a quarter of a million people were evacuated from the region, and about 10,000 people in Ukraine alone have died so as a result of the disaster, though exact figures are unknown.
European countries fear another blast at one of the Chernobyl reactors. The G-7 has urged Kiev to close the station, but its words have gone unheeded, as has EU pressure. Ukraine has ignored EU demands, even though the EU has backed them up by witholding hundreds of millions of dollars of economic aid.
Even if Ukraine and the West can agree on financing, the technical problems of closing and cleaning up Chernobyl could prevent Ukraine from reaching its self-imposed 2000 deadline: ''It's not like turning out a light in a room,'' Foreign Minister Udovenko said. Closing the plant would also mean a 7 percent cut in Ukraine's electricity-generating capacity.
The tough line taken by Ukrainian leaders and a powerful domestic nuclear lobby make it clear Kiev is prepared to play a waiting game with the West, observers here say.
The station's director, Sergei Parashin, says Chernobyl is as safe as Ukraine's four other nuclear power plants.
''Once the G-7 makes a decision on financing, we'll start talking about our next step. Once they lay the foundation for the new plant, we'll start taking Chernobyl off line. And when the new plant is finished, we'll shut down the last reactor,'' he says.
''It's clear and simple. The longer the G-7 holds out on deciding, the longer our deadlines will drag out.''