The warning lights began to flash at Chernobyl's notorious nuclear power station, indicating a high-pressure steam leak. As a result, the complex's last reactor was shut down unceremoniously at 11:04 a.m. on Wednesday, just days before it was due to be officially decommissioned.
Declaring it a "historic moment," officials say they are not sure if the plant will be revved up again, just to hit the "off" switch Dec. 15.
Chernobyl is the site of the world's worst nuclear accident. The Soviet-era meltdown on April 26, 1986, immediately killed some 30 people and spewed radioactive material across Europe. Radiation is blamed for at least 6,000 subsequent deaths and health problems affecting millions in Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus.
But part of Chernobyl's legacy, analysts say, is positive: The disaster was a critical event that shook the nuclear power industry out of complacency, threw a spotlight on East-West differences, and brought a new sense of caution as well as tougher safety rules.
"Chernobyl was a real eye-opener that made people think about the apparent contradiction between safety and production," says Mark Hibbs, the Bonn, Germany based Europe and Asia editor for Nucleonics Week, a specialist magazine based in Washington, D.C. "The Soviets saw safety as putting limits on production, but today we know that the safer a reactor is, the more productive it will be."
If that was a primary lesson from Chernobyl, analysts say, the emergency shutdown this week is a case in point. In the past - with plans for the big finale that feature President Leonid Kuchma well under way - engineers would have thought twice about turning off the reactor early. The leaking pipe caused an increase in temperature and humidity in a sealed room. It was not serious, engineers say, though fixing it required turning off the reactor until the room cooled.
"Anyone would have been punished in 1986 for shutting down for such a small thing," says Sergei Pavlovsky, head of Chernobyl's external relations department. "The priority then was electrical output, not safety. The accident changed all our thoughts."
Ukraine inherited Chernobyl with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. Russians and Ukrainians have fond memories of trips before the accident to the vast forests nearby, not to mention the good mushroom picking. Today, a barbed-wire fence encircles an 18-mile "exclusion zone" around the plant. Immediately after the accident, 100,000 residents were evacuated, though a few thousand have returned. Much of the zone is likely to be relatively safe in 100 years, officials say. But it may be thousands of years before plutonium contamination dissipates in an inner, six-mile ring, where no one is allowed to live.
Ground zero is Unit Four of the Chernobyl complex, where an estimated 200 tons of "hot" radioactive material is encased in a huge concrete and steel tomb called the sarcophagus.
In front of the plant's main office, a large silver head of Lenin sits defiantly on a plinth, a holdover of an earlier era. These days, every worker must also pass elaborate radiation detectors, and a small black dosimeter is clipped to every lapel.
Western experts have sought to "imbue a safety culture" at former-Soviet reactors for more than a decade, and the "absolute key" driving force was the Chernobyl blast, says Gordon Fowler, Ukraine officer for the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
"The goal is very, very large: to change the way people are thinking," says Mr. Fowler. The NRC began work in the Soviet Union in 1988, and while NRC-supported local regulatory bodies are beginning to work, it is a long-term process. "We are a lot further along, but you've got to stay in there with them," he says.
Though there are a dozen reactors in Russia and Lithuania of the same RBMK design as Chernobyl, Ukraine has come under the heaviest Western pressure to close its plant for good. Unit Four was destroyed by the 1986 blast, and two other reactors have since been shut down.
But after one of Chernobyl's best years in memory - operating at above 82 percent capacity, until frozen electrical wires forced an initial shutdown on Nov. 28 - many here argue that closing Unit Three will deprive Ukrainians of much-needed electricity and thousands of well-paying jobs. Winter beginning to bite is a further complication.
"It's a political decision to shut it down, which doesn't meet the interests of Ukraine or the people who work here. It's a demand of the West," says Artun Zakharov, a leading project engineer. The plant provides 5 percent of Ukraine's energy and so will deprive 5 percent of the population of electricity, he says, because there "is no power that can take its place."
Western donors promised to provide alternatives, but directors of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development only met yesterday to vote on a $215 million loan for two new nuclear plants. Russia has made clear that - despite anxiety in the West about its RBMK plant design - it won't consider shutting down its reactors. Yevgeny Adamov, Russia's atomic energy minister and one of the RBMK designers, last week accused Ukraine of bowing to Western pressure. "There is a tradeoff or compromise between Ukraine getting loans and pressure to close the plant," Mr. Adamov said. "There are no grounds - technical or safety - to close the Chernobyl nuclear power plant."
Western experts disagree, citing design weaknesses that contributed to the disaster. Russia has "taken a lot of steps" and "corrected the most egregious" problems," says the NRC's Fowler, but "the West would still not license those plants." The poor state of the economies of Russia and other former Soviet states make changes tough, he notes, and applying Western standards in such conditions is difficult.
Closing may be a symbolic victory, but the accident here also sparked calls for a more open understanding of such facilities. Western governments found that, when Soviet authorities finally acknowledged the 1986 blast two days later, they knew almost nothing about the plant's design - and could offer little help. Transparency is one lesson from Chernobyl, says Mr. Hibbs, that is still being learned. "Some people feel that a few nuclear programs are just as isolated today as the Soviets were 15 years ago." India, for example, has refused safety inspections by the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency, and "a lot of people say it is an accident waiting to happen."
As the Chernobyl reactor cools down - possibly for the last time - its legacy may put an end to a Soviet joke popular before the accident that "even a gas stove should be as safe as the nuclear industry."
"Back then, society was quite calm, maybe too sure, of their nuclear power stations. But now people are quite aware of their responsibility," says Vladimir Komarov, a senior director at Chernobyl. "This [shutdown] decision has a political and psychological basis, to show that the thing that happened could never ... be repeated here," he says. "But the sarcophagus will remain, and the problem will remain here."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society