Chernobyl Is Closed, But for How Long?

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Leonid Kuchma (left) lights candles during a Chernobyl memorial service

The government of Ukraine finally closed the Chernobyl nuclear reactor on Friday. Does this close the book on Soviet-era nuclear energy disasters?

"Not necessarily. There are conflicting schools of thought on that. Definitely, it was dangerous to maintain Chernobyl. But on the other hand, these things come and go, and you can never be sure they won't return. In Armenia, they had a power station of the same design as Chernobyl. And in the years after the explosion, as the Soviet Union reached its lowest ebb and collapsed, the environmentalist movement managed to get that reactor shut down. It was a particularly dangerous one, because in those glorious Soviet times they managed to build a nuclear power plant directly over a geological fault. But eventually, after their bruising war with Azerbaijan and suffering many years of power shortages, the Armenians simply reopened the reactor. And it's hard to guarantee that the Ukrainians won't eventually do the same."

Indeed, they're pulling the plug on the reactor just as they're going into a harsh winter. Do they have an alternative energy source to replace the power they're losing from Chernobyl?

"Actually no, their situation is very bad. Even before closing Chernobyl, they had daily outages in the capital, Kiev. In fact, they're so regular that they're actually scheduled, blacking out whole sections of the city for hours at a time so that power can be supplied to other regions. Now, without Chernobyl, they will have to extend those blackouts. Their only alternative is to rely more heavily on heating oil, which comes from Russia. And that could raise political tensions by making them more dependent on Russia. In the long term they're relying on promises from Europe of billions of dollars to help them develop a new nuclear energy program. But that's not going to help them in the short term."

Presumably, that could create a political crisis for President Leonid Kuchma.

"Kuchma has far bigger problems to worry about. Right now he's facing a major scandal, having been accused of conspiracy and murder. It relates to the disappearance of Kiev journalist Georgy Gongadze, who was very critical of Kuchma and is believed to have been kidnapped and killed. Several days ago the speaker of parliament revealed a tape recording made by a former bodyguard of Kuchma, which supposedly has the president meeting with senior officials and demanding in very harsh language that the journalist be killed. Opposition politicians also claim to have a videotaped confession from the bodyguard. Kuchma denies everything, and a major scandal is brewing."

And of course while all this is happening, there may still be a continuing nuclear reaction under the concrete sarcophagus that was poured over the exploded reactor at Chernobyl.

"Nobody knows exactly what's happening under the sarcophagus. There have been rumors of leaks, and nobody knows how solid the construction is. One thing that's clear is that it needs constant monitoring and regular inspection, and this costs money that Ukraine does not have. Kuchma is a politician. He'll always play both ends against the middle, playing NATO countries against the Russians and vice versa. But beyond the politicking, there's a very real problem. Chernobyl requires urgent attention from the international community. When the Ukraine is broke and Russia is poor, there's a real danger that Chernobyl will be left unattended. And that can't be allowed to happen."