France draws up Chernobyl plan

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FRANCOIS MITTERRAND has said France will ask its Western partners to draw up an emergency programme to replace nuclear power stations in the former Soviet Union - particularly Chernobyl in Ukraine - with safer reactors. The French President, speaking to European civil servants on Monday evening, said he would ask for an urgent aid package at the Group of Seven summit of industrialised nations in Naples in July.

In Kiev, the European Union ambassador, Luis Moreno, said it would provide Ecu3m ( pounds 2.3m) for Ukraine to hold a tender to build a new 'sarcophagus' over the fourth reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear plant. 'The European Community and the West want to see Chernobyl closed, but on the other hand we understand that Ukraine has a great need for energy', he said. 'Any progress is linked with closure of the station.' The tender is aimed at finding the best and cheapest project to make safe the fourth reactor, wrecked by an explosion that unleashed the world's worst nuclear accident in 1986.

Mr Mitterrand's remarks came two weeks after the French Nuclear Safety and Protection Institute issued an alarming report calling for the immediate closure of Chernobyl. The institute's report said the 'sarcophagus', a concrete tomb hastily constructed round the stricken reactor after the April 1986 fire, could leak. 'An external event (an earthquake or hurricane) could destabilise it and release a cloud of radio-active powder,' the report said.

Brice Lalonde, environment minister in the French Socialist government from 1988 to 1992, said he had been shocked on a recent visit to Ukraine to discover that the authorities had turned the site into a dollar-earner by providing tours for foreign tourists. He said the attitude showed a lack of appreciation of the dangers that the site presented.

Mr Mitterrand said there were 'dozens of nuclear power stations which could explode at any moment' in the former Soviet Union. The French Nuclear Safety Institute's report said that, while some RBMK reactors could be made more safe, this was not possible for all of them.

'Europe, the US and Japan must come to an agreement to master this immense and extremely costly technical problem,' Mr Mitterrand said. 'We must close these nuclear power stations.' He said the G7 countries should 'help to ensure that, with the agreement of the governments concerned, we are all safe from catastrophes whose consequences I dare not imagine'.