Lethal legacy

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ON THE side of the apartment block wall, shrouded by weeds and doused, invisibly, with radiation, there is a four-word message in very deliberate red letters: "Forgive me, my Motherland." Across the landscape, through the afternoon haze, the crime in question rears up into the sky, grey as a battleship but with a slightly Dickensian tilt, like a building from a cartoon by Boz.

Forgive me, the graffiti writer can almost be heard to plead, for my part in creating this monster, a nuclear power station that erupted like a volcano, sending a cloud of radioactivity across the northern hemisphere, and which is still threatening humanity, even now. Forgive me for gambling with the planet. We are in Pripyat, a town created for the workers at Chernobyl nuclear power station, for the young talent of the Soviet Union. On 27 April 1986 - a full day after the top blew off Reactor Unit 4 - children were still playing in these streets.

The bakery, sports hall, post office, cafes, hotel, all carried on as normal. The buses, more than 1,000 of them, didn't arrive until the afternoon. That's when everyone knew there was a crisis, even though the high-ups in Kiev and the Kremlin hushed it up for days afterwards. The heads of the local Communist Party were first to board the coaches. Even then, the residents thought they would be back home in three or four days. Twelve years on, they have yet to return. Pripyat, built with such high hopes, is engulfed by a hush that will last for decades, if not centuries. "My brother lived here so I came here often," says Andrei Gensitsky, our guide. "This was a great place, full of clever young people." The average age was 24. This is not a great place any more. The surrounding countryside, part of a contaminated 30km exclusion zone around Chernobyl, is dotted with young pines sprouting through the remnants of the winter snow, their form echoing the hundreds of electricity pylons stretching into the distance.

Huge notices stand on the edge of the forests around: "Dangerous to health". The same warning applies to 1 million tons of metal scattered across the zone - from tractors to helicopters used in the clean-up operation - and to numerous cattle sheds and deserted cottages. It even applies to the mushrooms that will grow this autumn in the peaty soil. Last year's crop was even more contaminated than the year before.

But the eye is drawn to the contours of the ruined reactor itself. We drive towards it, park in its shadow, and get out of the car. "It is OK to stand here," says Andrei, "the radiation is much worse over the fence." He pointed to a wall, 40 yards away.

We take his word on trust, as he has no measuring device and nor have we. All we have are some ill-fitting fatigues, leather boots and daft- looking Russian fur hats, issued in exchange for our clothes by the nearby "decontamination centre". Andrei doesn't believe in wearing a dosimeter, which checks radiation dosage, because "they don't work". He doesn't really seem to believe that working in the zone is a bad idea, as reports about the fall-out from Chernobyl were "exaggerated". Like a lot of people who drift round the zone, he seems to live in a trance of self-deception.

His wife works here, too, no worries. Well, not many. In an abrupt burst of gloom, he admits that they fear to have children. Birth defects in the most seriously contaminated areas of neighbouring Belarus shot up by 161 per cent in the decade after the disaster. There were sharp rises, too, in diabetes, malignant tumours and nervous disorders.

We gaze up at the hulk itself. Andrei, a generally sullen figure, seems animated by it, just as he had been earlier, briefly, when he showed me the rusting and contaminated

boats in the nearby harbour. Some remote corner of the mind is thrilled by the knowledge that we are looking at the source of the worst nuclear disaster the planet has ever seen, and that it is not yet dormant.

Not by any means. Within the 74-metre-high concrete and steel sarcophagus that encloses the ruins of the reactor, a few hundred yards from us, there is a cocktail of fresh nuclear fuel, vast piles of poisonous wreckage, and 34 tons of highly radioactive dust.

It was built by remote control in the mayhem after the disaster. Some of the workers were only able to work the machines for minutes at a time, before exceeding their maximum radiation doses. When they finished, they posed for a photograph in front of their handiwork carrying a banner: "The government's task is fulfilled".

But it wasn't. The shelter is full of holes, cracks, welding gaps. Taken together, a full 100 square metres of the interior is exposed to the atmosphere. Rain water gets in, and there is the risk that it will mingle with the contents, creating a chain reaction leading to a "neutron flash", and squirt a fresh dose of radiation into the outside world.

Water may also be getting out. Scientists, who monitor the shelter, have detected signs of thritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, in bore holes for testing subsoil water. They fear that - if nothing is done - it could one day get into nearby Ukraine's water supply, causing another catastrophe within the 50 million-strong population.

But officials here have more immediate worries. They fear the sarcophagus and especially its roof, where most of the lethal dust is concentrated, could soon collapse, releasing its payload into the environment. They quote estimates which say that the chances of some sort of collapse is about one in 10 every year. "The shelter is potentially dangerous," says Mykola Dmytruk, deputy director of information at Chernobyl. "Even a teenager can see that."

Opinions differ on the degree of risk. Sitting in his office a few miles away, Sergei Bogatov, a Russian scientist in charge of radiation monitoring, says the dust is more like "pebbles", and is too heavy to be borne far afield by the wind. Released, it would severely, probably lethally, contaminate the immediate area of Chernobyl. "There would have to be a high powered nuclear explosion for it to be dispersed over a wide area," he says.

In a 1996 report, Greenpeace took a more pessimistic view, warning that a roof collapse or an explosion within the core could cause wider contamination beyond the zone. It pointed out that there are earthquakes in the Chernobyl region. Arguments will always arise over the degree of threat, but no one disputes the basics: the need to strengthen the sarcophagus before an accident happens.

This month is the 12th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident, an explosion that released 200 times more radioactivity than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atom bombs. The shelter has long been recognised as a liability, yet only now is progress being made towards repairing it. Why has it taken so long? What happened to the momentum for change that followed the disaster itself, the political rhetoric about international co-operation and never letting such a tragedy recur?

The answer is that the aftermath of tragedy has been dominated by haggling, bureaucracy, geopolitics, commercial interests and fading trust. Both Ukraine and the West have been eager to extract concessions from one another. Early optimism has faded into cynicism, curried by a belief that the international community will only spend money if it can get something back. Discussion has been confused by hype and self-interest. Ukrainian officials complain that the social problems - with public health, water, housing - are forgotten by the outside world. They say the West only cares about avoiding another big bang, and selling its technology.

Progress has been painfully slow. In 1992 the plant's engineer revealed that the sacrophagus's concrete was being eaten away by radioactivity and would probably last only six years. In June 1993, the Nuclear Energy Agency confirmed it had holes and leaks. Two years later, Leonid Kuchma, President of Ukraine, said it could even produce another nuclear explosion. Sure, some of these people may well have been talking up the risks in search of funds - but all agree there is a risk.

Yet only now has a start been made. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) is close to signing a contract with a consortium which will manage the rebuilding of the shelter. So far the bank has received commitments of $387m (pounds 233m) for making the shelter safe, from 21 countries, dominated by the G7. This is only half the estimated cost of the project. It is, take note, only for rebuilding the shelter; proposals for an entirely new sarcophagus have been set aside as too expensive.

One reason for this international miserliness is a suspicion that dollars will end up in Swiss bank accounts or paying for private mansions on the Black Sea coast. This is not without justification, given the scale of corruption throughout the former Soviet Union. According to one Ukrainian official, Vladimir Usatenko, millions of dollars of aid to Chernobyl have been salted away into private bank accounts over the last decade. He claims snouts will be in the trough again once work on the shelter gathers momentum.

Western officials dispute these claims, pointing out that international funds - and especially those from the EBRD - are tightly controlled. But they say money has been stolen on a sizeable scale from the Ukrainian government, which imposes a Chernobyl income tax to pay for flats, cars and other benefits for the victims. It seems conmen have little compunction about snaffling funds earmarked for the countless people still suffering.

Given the scale of the Chernobyl disaster, the world ought at least to be able to rest easy in the knowledge that the power station itself, the font from which the nightmare flowed, is now consigned to history's dustbin. Wrong. It has four reactors, all currently shut down. But the Ukrainian government plans next month to restart Reactor 3 - which shares a wall with the shattered shell of Reactor 4.

Engineers working on the sarcophagus may find themselves moving around heavy equipment, and highly radioactive wreckage, next to an operating nuclear reactor. Worries extend further. Not long ago the plant's sloppy attitude to safety and assorted equipment flaws prompted the World Association of Nuclear Operators to condemn it as "dangerously unsafe".

How long Chernobyl will go on pumping out electricity to the fuel-starved Ukraine is still uncertain. The Ukrainian government signed an agreement with G7 in December 1995 finally to shut the place down before 2000, but whether this will actually happen is open to question. Last Friday President Kuchma said Ukraine would not close Chernobyl if the G7 reneges on what he considers the West's part of the deal - an agreement to provide loans for the completion of two nuclear reactors elsewhere in the country, at Khmelnitsky and Rivne.

The G7 is showing signs of reluctance to do so, arguing that various conditions must be met. The new reactors - which are Russian-designed VVER-1000 types, different from Chernobyl's - must meet international safety standards and be the most economical way to generate energy.

Crucially - as it turns out - the G7 had to be satisfied that Ukraine could service its debt. This clause is currently proving the sticking point. Alarmed by signs that economic reforms were being rolled back in Ukraine's power industry, the World Bank has frozen a loan to its energy sector. The effect was to undermine still further Ukraine's credentials as a reliable borrower.

Thus, the EBRD has yet to agree to help fund the new reactors. Ukraine has been discussing funding with Russia, which appears willing to pitch in if it means business for their nuclear industry. But a deal with Moscow has not yet materialised. Without finance for his new nuclear plants, President Kuchma might just live up to his threat to keep Chernobyl going for a few more years, flogging more power out of it into the 21st century.

How dangerous is this? Although a tranche of safety measures has been introduced since the disaster, the West is still adamant that Chernobyl should be closed down for ever. The chances of another massive explosion are far less today. But as one US expert pointed out, "I don't think we accept that it couldn't happen again."

Put that to the former Soviet scientists who work in the exclusion zone, peering into the heart of the sacrophagus, and you get a volley of despairing head-shaking. They insist that Chernobyl's much-criticised RBMK design is safe, and that the disaster - which happened during a late-night test - was caused by operator error. "I don't understand why the station should close at all," said Dr Eduard Pazukhin, "After all, nowhere else has a safety zone around it, stuffed with scientists."

A veteran of the nuclear industry, he waxes lyrical about the RBMK, viewing it as a triumph of Soviet science (even though it was rejected by the British as early as 1947). He appears motivated by patriotism and pride, rather than money. Dr Pazukhin takes home the grand sum of $320 a month - and that often arrives weeks late. "This reactor is perfectly safe. There is no danger. I am a supporter of nuclear technology. It has been my life. For me, Chernobyl is like a baby."

A baby? Staring up at the leaking shelter that encloses the wreckage of one of these things, not knowing what is stewing away within, or what effect those potions may be having, it is hard to see any endearing characteristics. It looks like a ghastly monument to how stupid humans can be. A reminder of how lessons are never learnt.

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