Chernobyl to close by the end of the year

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The Independent Online

Ukraine's government have decided to close down the Chernobyl nuclear plant by the end of this year, as Western countries have long demanded, but said final approval still must come from President Leonid Kuchma.

The government decision followed earlier pledges by Kuchma to shut the plant, site of the world's worst nuclear accident.

The Cabinet ordered the Fuel and Energy Ministry to work out a general plan for closing Chernobyl within three months. After that, a more detailed program taking into account social protection for Chernobyl's workers has to be devised within six months.

Necessary spending has to be included in the 2001 budget, the government decision said.

Kuchma promised U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson last month that the plant would be shut down this year.

But Kuchma did not give a definite closing date and reiterated that Chernobyl would close only once American, Ukrainian and other international experts work out an aid deal to help compensate Ukraine for the energy the plant provides.

Just hours after reporting its decision, the government also raised a similar requirement.

"We are not talking about unilateral stoppage of Chernobyl's reactor No. 3 that would put an end to everything," said Cabinet spokeswoman Natalia Zarudna. "We want all the aspects - technical, financial and social - to be resolved."

Zarudna said the Cabinet decision was a contingency plan in case Kuchma takes a "political decision" to shut down the plant.

Under the 1995 deal with the Group of Seven major industrialized democracies, Ukraine promised to close Chernobyl in exchange for aid. But the former Soviet republic repeatedly delayed the closure, saying it never received the money.

"We are moving toward implementation of (1995) memorandum and hope the G-7 and the European Union also fulfill their obligations," Zarudna said.

Cash-poor Ukraine, which gets about 40 percent of its electricity from Chernobyl and four other nuclear plants, has been seeking funds to help it complete two new nuclear reactors as compensation for Chernobyl's closure.

Environmental groups have urged Ukraine to find alternative sources of energy, and critics have long accused it of using Chernobyl as leverage to get money from the West.

Chernobyl's reactor No. 4 exploded and caught fire during a poorly conceived test in 1986, covering much of Europe with a radioactive cloud.

The Ukrainian government has blamed at least 8,000 deaths on the disaster, including those killed immediately, workers who died in the massive cleanup operation, and people who subsequently died of cancer and other radiation-related illnesses.

Three of Chernobyl's four reactors are now permanently shut down, leaving only one reactor, No. 3, in operation. It underwent long repairs last year but since has suffered several malfunctions.

The government decision was announced as representatives of donor nations were meeting in Ukraine to discuss the future of Chernobyl and work on making the cement and steel sarcophagus covering the ruined No. 4 reactor more safe.