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Chernobyl forgotten as Ukraine turns nuclear

The return of an industry that gave the world its worst reactor accident
As the scene of the world's worst nuclear disaster 10 years ago, Ukraine might be expected to have renounced nuclear power, or at least to be curtailing its use. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Ukraine's nuclear industry is expanding, with the support of politicians in and out of government who defend it as a means of achieving economic independence from Russia.

Even the Chernobyl plant, where a reactor exploded and caught fire on 26 April 1986, is still operating, although the government says it will meet western concerns and close the station by 2000.

The pro-nuclear lobby points to the fact that last winter was one of the coldest and fiercest in living memory, and at times Ukrainians relied on their country's network of five stations and 15 reactors to supply half their energy needs.

Without Chernobyl and the other stations, nuclear industry officials say, schools and factories would have closed and people would have shivered in their homes.

"The last three winters have shown that Ukraine cannot survive without nuclear power. Our stations pulled the entire energy system through," said Nur Nigmatullin, the acting head of Ukraine's state nuclear authority.

Apart from demanding the closure of Chernobyl, whose Soviet-style graphite- core reactor is viewed as fundamentally flawed, in design, western governments have urged Ukraine to reduce its reliance on nuclear power through conservation measures and increased efficiency in other energy sectors.

But Ukraine has barely emerged from a deep economic slump that coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the government says the tight budgets needed to stabilise the economy do not allow for large expenditure on modernising the nuclear sector and launching energy conversion projects.

The Group of Seven industrialised countries has offered Ukraine about $3bn (pounds 1.65bn) to close Chernobyl and revamp the national energy industry, but the government is holding out for at least $4bn. Officials say the western aid would not cover the cost of replacing the cracking concrete- and-steel "sarcophagus" that was hastily built by Soviet authorities after April 1986 to entomb the ruined Chernobyl reactor.

But money is only part of the story. Another factor behind Ukraine's new-found determination to expand the nuclear industry is the decline in popular anti-nuclear sentiment.

After Chernobyl, opposition to nuclear power turned into a powerful political force that was exploited by anti-communist nationalists seeking to create an independent Ukraine.

In 1990, one year before the declaration of independence, Ukraine's parliament passed a moratorium on building nuclear power stations, including three reactors that were almost ready to go into service. In 1993, parliament lifted the moratorium, and last year a reactor at Zaporizha, Europe's largest plant with six 1,000 megawatt units, came on line.

Both the government and many of its critics argue that cutting back nuclear power would risk placing Ukraine's economy at the mercy of foreign energy suppliers. In practice this means Russia, and to a lesser extent Turkmenistan, to which Ukraine owes huge debts in unpaid oil and gas bills.

The argument clearly has some substance at a time when Russia is using its influence in economic and energy matters as a way of re-integrating several former Soviet republics, notably Belarus, under its leadership. Persistent difficulties in Ukraine's relations with Russia, which boil down to the question of how far Russian leaders genuinely accept Ukrainian independence, make the authorities in Kiev wary of taking any measures in the nuclear sector that could increase dependence on Russia.

As a result, the Ukrainian nuclear industry is looking forward to the completion of two new reactors - one at a plant in Rivne, and one at Khmelnitsky. Both were about 85 per cent finished by the start of this year, and there are two more reactors at Khmelnitsky which are already 45 per cent complete.

Last July, Ukraine's nuclear authorities even declared that Chernobyl was the safest of its five plants, and the Chernobyl director, Serhii Parashin, proposed that it should continue to operate until 2007. If that seems unlikely, the further development of Ukraine's nuclear industry as a whole does not.