Fear strikes Kiev as Chernobyl heats up
MOSCOW — In the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, the scenes recalled those during April 1986, when rumours were flying of a massive accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, 100 kilometres to the north. Residents kept their windows shut and their children inside. At railway stations and airline offices, queues lengthened as parents made ready to send their offspring to stay with distant relatives.
The cause of the renewed alarm was a series of unexplained increases in the recorded level of neutron emissions inside the concrete and steel sarcophagus that covers the destroyed Chernobyl No. 4 reactor.
On September 12 and 16, two bursts of radiation were registered, with measuring instruments inside the sarcophagus recording neutron levels many times those that have been typical over the past 10 years. Levels of gamma rays were also reported to have increased.
This was not the first time such phenomena had been observed; similar instances occurred in 1990 and in January this year.
For some days after the latest incidents, government authorities, as in 1986, revealed nothing. Then, on September 24, Ukrainian environmental protection and nuclear safety minister Yury Kostenko warned that another explosion was possible.
"We are observing a chain reaction in the ruined reactor", Kostenko told a press conference. "We have to review our strategy ... By some means or other we must remove as much fuel as possible to rule out the development of chain reactions inside the devastated reactor."
With data limited, nuclear experts have not rushed to endorse Kostenko's conclusions. The vice-president of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, Viktor Baryakhtar, was quoted by the Moscow daily Segodnya as saying that an explosion was unlikely since the materials were relatively dispersed. However, he added, he could not guarantee that this would not occur.
As news of the latest incidents forced its way into the open, the first response by national leaders was to try to forestall panic by playing down the dangers. Here, government spokespeople received help from Ukraine's large and influential nuclear power establishment.
A line of argument heard repeatedly at this time was that the increase in neutron emissions, recorded by three of 10 measuring devices inside the sarcophagus, had not occurred at all. Heavy rains were said to have raised the humidity inside the sarcophagus, causing the devices to malfunction.
However, the nuclear industry proved unable to get its story straight, or to stop technical staff reporting the facts as they observed them. According to the Moscow daily Izvestia on September 26, a special commission charged with investigating the neutron anomalies concluded that conditions inside the sarcophagus had remained dry.
The deputy director of the Chernobyl plant told a television interviewer: "It has not been possible to confirm that a self-sustaining chain reaction took place. But neither is there any basis for stating that the instruments gave false readings."
Meant to ease public anxiety, the claim that the rises in neutron emissions never happened seems to have had exactly the opposite effect. Among the Ukrainian population, the suspicion has increased that the authorities are hiding something dangerous.
Pro-nuclear interests have now advanced a more subtle argument, which has been given prominent treatment by newspapers in neighbouring Russia. This argument holds that Kostenko's warning of a possible explosion was a ploy aimed at spreading alarm in the west and forcing the G7 group of countries to meet pledges of aid to Ukraine.
In April, leaders of the G7 countries agreed to come up with US$3 billion for building a new sarcophagus and shutting down the remaining Chernobyl reactors. Representatives of the G7 group and Ukraine are due to meet in Paris on October 11, and the topics discussed are expected to include the Chernobyl funding.
Ukrainians were thus assured that they could relax. The suggestions that the Chernobyl No. 4 reactor might again explode, media reports implied, were simply a case of politicians peddling scare stories in order to pressure opponents and score an advantageous deal.
The picture has been complicated by the fact that the impoverished Ukrainian authorities have excellent reasons for wanting to scare western governments, and in some cases have arguably tried to do so.
Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma was reported on September 27 to have rebuked Kostenko for trying to "intimidate people" with his warnings. However, Kuchma added that uncertainty over conditions inside the ruined reactor would prompt him to press the G7 powers for aid in constructing a new sarcophagus. Izvestia on September 26, in a lead story entitled "Nuclear Blackmail for Mercenary Ends?", quoted Kostenko as warning that if G7 help were delayed, the planned shutdown of the Chernobyl plant in 2003 might have to be postponed.
As these political struggles have unfolded, some of the most pertinent facts about Chernobyl have not commanded much weight. But one point which no-one disputes is that the situation inside the sarcophagus is very poorly understood. An International Atomic Energy Agency spokesperson quoted by the news service OMRI on September 26 discounted fears of another explosion, but admitted that a full explanation for the recorded rises in radiation might never be found.
In these circumstances, arguing that another explosion "cannot" occur is simply irresponsible. The stakes are immense. Accepting that a chain reaction at Chernobyl No. 4 was "in principle" possible, Izvestia on September 26 noted scientific warnings that such a development could lead to an explosion "exceeding the power of the 1986 Chernobyl blast by hundreds of times".
The Ukrainian and G7 governments therefore have an obligation to draw up and implement plans on a "worst case" basis. Kostenko's preferred solution, removing the melted-down fuel from the remains of the reactor, is almost certainly impossible. That means that a new sarcophagus, strong enough to withstand a major explosion, must be built over the present, rapidly deteriorating, structure. An essential aspect of this task will be the closure of the No. 3 reactor block, which shares a wall with the destroyed reactor.
The expense will be enormous; the Ukrainian government last year estimated the total price of shutting down Chernobyl at US$4 billion. But the western governments that have pushed nuclear power as a cheap, environmentally acceptable, option have no right to deny aid in the quantities required.