Chernobyl shield crumbling

THE concrete sarcophagus built around the Chernobyl reactor that was destroyed in the 1986 fire is structurally unsound and in danger of collapsing, Western nuclear inspectors will tell Ukrainian officials meeting in Vienna today. 'Numerous safety deficiencies' also exist in the operation of the two remaining nuclear reactors at Chernobyl still producing electricity, and international levels of safety are not being met at the plant, the inspectors will report.

An inspection team from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) found that the sarcophagus is deteriorating rapidly and unlikely to have the 20-year lifespan predicted. Much of the concrete corrosion has occurred over the past winter.

Scientists sent to inspect the remaining two operational reactors at Chernobyl could not fail to notice the poor condition of the sarcophagus built to seal off the remains of reactor number 4, said David Kyd, an IAEA spokesman.

A meeting of government officials from Ukraine and Western countries is to take place today at the IAEA to discuss measures to prevent a nuclear crisis.

The US and European countries would like the remaining two reactors to be closed down, although the IAEA said this is not the only possibility. 'There are ways of making a decision in the future that will prevent closure of Chernobyl, but all of them cost money and all of them require some sort of assistance from the West,' Mr Kyd said. Ukraine's economic problems, which have contributed to the safety deficiences identified by the atomic-energy agency, also make it difficult for the country to close down a major source of electricity overnight, Mr Kyd said.

As well a being unable to afford new equipment, the authorities at Chernobyl have witnessed the exodus of almost 150 highly trained workers - about 20 per cent of the staff - many of whom have returned to Russia.

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