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Chernobyl Closure—One Step Forward,
Two Steps Back
by Serhiy Kurykin,
Vice-President of the Green Party of Ukraine
The infamous nuclear power plant (NPP) at Chernobyl is an especially dangerous facility, even if we use the criteria of the nuclear industry itself. The power plant's reactors (RBMK-type) were designed as dual-purpose installations. Production of weapons-grade plutonium was considered a more important function of the reactor than electricity generation. As a result, the reactor's design was inherently unreliable, incorporating at least 32 major faults, which could not be corrected by any modernization.
We may consider the sensational statement of Mr. Victor Brukhanov, the former director of Chernobyl NPP as major evidence. Speaking at a Ukraine Green Party press conference in Kiev on 4 December 2000, he confirmed the unreliable design of RBMK reactors. Analyzing the circumstances of the disaster, he stressed that the explosion of April 26, 1986 occurred in the course of the normal operation of the plant, and was not due to any unorthodox action on the part of the plant personnel nor to any other extraordinary events. This statement radically contradicts explanations which blamed the disaster on violations of operational safety on the part of plant personnel (although media sources actively disseminated these versions after the disaster).
The notorious "shelter" facility (the sarcophagus, covering the debris of the fourth power unit) at the plant is the second equally serious argument in favor of the closure of the plant. Nobody has adequate knowledge of the nature and outcome of the physical and chemical processes which are occurring inside the "sarcophagus." The behavior of the sarcophagus is therefore highly unpredictable. There is always some risk of accident, so the presence of operating reactors in close proximity to the shelter makes the threat and potential consequences of a new disaster substantially higher.
The decommissioning of Chernobyl could be considered a major success on the part of the international Green movement. This would be so, were it not accompanied by the stated intention of the EU and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) to provide Ukraine with loans (worth $1.475 billion in total) for the completion of a second reactor unit at Khmelnitski and a fourth reactor unit at Rivne (Kh2/R4). These reactors are considered to be replacement generating capacity which should cover the gap caused by the decommissioning of Chernobyl. Thus, the international nuclear industry lobby, having made one step backward in Chernobyl, makes two steps forward in Rivne and Khmelnitski.
Ukrainian Greens believe that this EU decision was mainly motivated by the current situation in the nuclear industry. A dramatic reduction in the construction of new nuclear generating capacity and a switch to non-nuclear solutions to power supply problems has resulted in a substantial decrease in demand for NPP equipment and the associated design, operation and maintenance services. These developments have forced large corporations with a stake in the nuclear power industry (e.g. Westinghouse, Siemens, Franatom, etc.) to actively explore new markets in Central and Eastern Europe, with the support of international financial institutions and EU institutions.
The financial resources involved are huge—the total loans, according to Ukrainian experts and officials, are almost twice the estimated cost of completing two generating units. Of course, these resources will mainly be channeled to companies from Western Europe, with a substantial share of the money going to foreign consultants. Russia will supply fuel for the new units, while Ukraine gains only huge external debts and radioactive waste.
Besides all that, there is strong evidence to suggest that Ukraine will only be able to repay the $1.5 billion in loans and interest by exporting electricity generated by the new units to the West. Khmelnitski and Rivne were initially designed in Soviet times with the aim of exporting electricity. There are some doubts, therefore, that the two new reactors will be able to meet internal power demand. Ukraine simply does not need new reactors because existing capacity currently exceeds demand. It is peak load capacity that is in short supply, but NPPs cannot be used for this purpose!
Thus, EU countries will get triple benefits from implementation of the Kh2/R4 project: loan interest payments, the new enlarged market for EU companies and additional power supply from NPPs which pollute remote territories. Ukraine, in its turn, will not resolve its national power supply problems. Moreover, the project will exacerbate the country's dependence on Russian fuel imports. Are there not reasons to consider Kh2/R4 as some sort of nuclear colonialism of the 21st century?
The expected loan will not facilitate energy efficiency, modernization of power plants or implementation of energy conservation technologies. In Ukraine, the loan will not benefit the national economy in general. It will benefit only the nuclear power industry. The industry, with the assistance of its Western partners, aggressively markets itself to the public while it generates new problems that will require the allocation of a steadily increasing share of national resources. Within the context of our national interests, the completion of the reactor units at Khmelnitski and Rivne is a grave error. It will undoubtedly become a major obstacle to the development of an efficient, environmentally sustainable and safe power supply system in Ukraine.
So, what does the closure of the Chernobyl plant on 15 December 2000 represent? Is it a triumph for the anti-nuclear movement, or merely the beginning of another round of uneven struggle?
The text is from the February, 2001 UPDATE, Newsletter of the European Federation of Green Parties.