Chernobyl Shuts Down: Now The Hard Work Begins

KIEV, Ukraine, December 15, 2000 (ENS) - More than 14 years after one of its reactors exploded, causing the world's worst nuclear accident, Ukraine's Chernobyl nuclear plant permanently shut down today.

Reactor 4

The remains of Chernobyl's fourth reactor. (Photo courtesy Chernobyl Charity Online
Environmental group Greenpeace International immediately called upon the governments of Russia and Lithuania to close 13 other reactors that share Chernobyl's design. Others, including outgoing U.S. President Bill Clinton and director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohamed El Baradei, congratulated the Ukraine.

Amid much ceremony, the shutdown was televised across the nation. Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma addressed Ukrainians on air 113 kilometers (70 miles) south of the plant in Kiev.

Then, via live TV link to Chernobyl's control room, Kuchma gave the order. "To fulfill a state decision and Ukraine's international obligations, I hereby order the premature stoppage of the operation of reactor number three at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant."


Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma. (Photo courtesy Embassy of Ukraine, Washington, DC)
It was on April 26, 1986, that a combination of human error and design flaws in the Soviet built RBMK reactor resulted in the most severe accident ever seen at a nuclear power plant. Reactor number four was destroyed and, over the ensuing 10 days, large amounts of radioactive material were released to the environment.

Thirty-one people, mostly firemen, were killed immediately after the explosion. Over the following four months, about 116,000 members of the public were evacuated from the region to avoid continued radiation exposure.

The radionuclide composition of the material released in the accident was complex. The radioactive isotopes of iodine and caesium were of the greatest radiological significance.

Iodines, with their short radioactive half-lives, had the greater radiological impact in the short term, but the caesiums, with half-lives of the order of tens of years, have the greater radiological impact in the long term.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, material released from Chernobyl to the atmosphere and eventually deposited onto the surface of the earth was measurable over practically the entire northern hemisphere.


Over 100,000 people were evacuated from the area surrounding Chernobyl, including the city of Pripyat. (Photos courtesy Chernobyl Charity Online
But the highest concentrations were deposited in the region around the plant site, affecting Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. An exclusion zone around Chernobyl covering 4,300 square kilometers remains.

The affects of radiation from the accident have been most clearly illustrated by a highly significant increase in the incidence of thyroid cancer among those in the affected areas who were children in 1986.

The increase has been observed in children who were born before or within six months of the accident.

"What is Chernobyl for Ukraine?" asked Kuchma, during today's ceremony attended by more than 2,000 invited guests at Kiev's Palace of Ukraine hall.

"It's almost three and a half million victims of the catastrophe and its consequences, almost 10 percent of our territory tainted by radiation, 160,000 people who had to leave the places where they were born and move elsewhere."


About 200,000 people worked in the region of Chernobyl during the period 1986-1987, when radiation exposures were highest. All these people became known by the Russian term "likvidator."
Clinton sent a videotaped message of congratulations. "It's fitting that while a communist government of the USSR built this unsafe plant, a free and independent Ukraine is shutting it down," he said.

El Baradei expressed satisfaction at Chernobyl's shutdown and made a guarded offer of help on behalf of the IAEA.

"We remain ready to assist Ukrainian authorities to safely decommission the Chernobyl units as much as our resources allow."

Today's shutdown took only the flick of a switch, sending containment rods sliding into the reactor core to stop the atomic chain reaction. Decommissioning though, is expected to take another decade.

Decommissioning is the final phase in the lifecycle of a nuclear installation, covering all activities from shutdown and removal of fissile material to environmental restoration of the site. Technical operations include decontamination, dismantling and waste management.

In Chernobyl's case, this is a huge undertaking. In November 1986, a so-called sarcophagus was built to contain the remains of the reactor core and bring the release of radioactive material under control.


Outgoing President Bill Clinton sent Ukraine his congratulations. (Photo courtesy The White House)
The sarcophagus is thought to contain about 200 tonnes of irradiated and fresh nuclear fuel, mixed with other materials in various forms, mainly as dust. After more than a decade of containment, the sarcophagus's stability and the quality of its confinement are in doubt.

A collapse of the structure could lead to a release of radioactive dust and the exposure to radiation of the personnel employed at the site.

Chernobyl's three other reactors must also be decommissioned. Reactor two was shut after a huge fire in 1991 and reactor one passed its expiration date in 1996. Reactor three had been producing five percent of Ukraine's electricity until today.

Estimates are that the first phase of decommissioning the three units, projected over five years, would cost about US$85 million per year, with tasks mainly focused on removal of wastes and nuclear fuel.

Ukraine's Deputy Minister for Environment and Natural Resources Olexander Smyshliaiev called the work ahead "massive" in scope, at a briefing with IAEA officials last week. Not only must Chernobyl be decommissioned but the Ukraine must find alternative sources of energy. Chernobyl's 10,000 workers must also find new jobs.

But the Ukraine is not entirely without help. Today's shutdown is based on a 1995 agreement between Ukraine and the Group of Seven (G7) industrialized countries. The G7 agreed to a loan for the reform of the Ukraine's power sector and for the stabilization of the Chernobyl sarcophagus.


Chernobyl's fourth reactor is covered by a sarcophagus. (Photo courtesy International Atomic Energy Agency)
The deal included the completion of the half built nuclear reactors Khmelnitsky 2 and Rovno 4, known as "K2R4", as part of a package of energy options for replacing the power from Chernobyl.

Last Thursday the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) approved a loan of US$215 million for the completion of the K2R4 reactors. This week, the European Commission agreed to a loan of $585 million.

Greenpeace International attacked the funding decisions. "It is an utterly cynical decision by the EBRD and the European Commission to fund more nuclear reactors in a country, which suffers more than all others from the Chernobyl catastrophe, while in their own backyard in the European Union, not a single country is constructing new nuclear reactors." said Tobias Muenchmeyer of Greenpeace.

According to Greenpeace figures, 3.5 million people live on radioactive Ukrainian land, one million of them are children. Around 380,000 children have leukemia, thyroid problems and anaemia, said the group.

"In memory of and respect to the victims of Chernobyl we call on the government of Ukraine not to complete the reactors Khmelnitsky 2 and Rovno 4 as replacement of Chernobyl, but instead to pursue sustainable energy solutions based on renewable energy sources and energy efficiency," said Muenchmeyer.

Greenpeace warned that the risk of a second Chernobyl catastrophe in Europe is ever present. Thirteen reactors of the same design in Russia and Lithuania and another 200 reactors of only slightly safer design in Europe means it's only a question of time, said the group.

El Baradei

Director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed El Baradei. (Photo courtesy IAEA)
"Chernobyl has made shockingly clear, that the phaseout of nuclear power worldwide must be the priority for saving our planet," said Muenchmeyer.

"The crumbling Chernobyl sarcophagus stands as a testimony to the collapse of the nuclear dream, it is a symbol of the failure of nuclear power."

More than 110 nuclear facilities within the European Union are at various stages of the decommissioning process. It is forecast that at least a further 160 facilities will need to be decommissioned over the next 20 years within the present 15 member states.

Enlargement of the European Union would contribute to a rapid increase in the number of nuclear facilities to be decommissioned - at least a further 50 facilities, according to the European Commission.