SCMP Saturday, December 23, 2000

Chernobyl's gone, legacy remains

The events of April 26, 1986, stamped the name of a little-known town in the former Soviet Union firmly on the map, and forever made the word Chernobyl synonymous with the horrors of nuclear disaster.
Moreover, the consequences of the world's worst nuclear catastrophe had much to do with the break-up of the Soviet Union, five years later. The Soviet authorities were no longer to be trusted, even to tell the truth and issue warnings to their own people, let alone the rest of the world, once the unthinkable event had occurred.
Political consequences aside, Chernobyl's legacy is the appalling damage it caused to the health of millions of people, and the grave warning it issued to the rest of the world of the potential dangers of harnessing nuclear energy. People's views of nuclear power generation were changed forever.
What escaped from the exploded reactor at Chernobyl was a torrent of radiation 200 times more deadly than the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. According to the United Nations, some nine million people are thought to have been affected by fallout from Chernobyl, directly or indirectly. About 160,000 square kilometres of land in the Ukraine, Russia and Belarus was contaminated. The cost of the clean-up operation has been estimated at US$300 billion. On Friday the entire Chernobyl plant - the devastated No 4 reactor encased in a tomb of concrete and steel - was finally closed down, the result of pressure from the West and the promise of a US$585 million loan from the European Commission to help fund new electric power stations.
The shutdown, by Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, appeared to mark the end of Chernobyl. And yet Chernobyl is a tomb with a difference because its contents are very much alive. Inside the sealed reactor are 200 tonnes of nuclear material that will remain lethal for generations.
Perhaps more worrying still is the fact that another 12 reactors of the Chernobyl design still operate in Russia and Lithuania. They continue to provide jobs for thousands, and it is doubtful that the authorities could afford to replace them with modern, safer energy-producing plants, even if they had the will to do so. But pressure to shut down the reactors must be intensified, and the huge amount of money needed must be found, if not by the Russian and Lithuanian authorities, then by the West.
The terrible price of allowing reactors of such an inherently dangerous design to continue to operate is potentially far, far greater.