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by Olivia Ward

Moscow Bureau

Ten Years After the World’s Worst Nuclear Accident, the

Ukrainian Plant Is Still Generating a Lot of Heat

CHERNOBYL–Sometimes, on a good day, Victor Ivanov forgets

the moment that exploded his life. The heat, the

metallic-tasting smoke, the jolting shock of realization:

Something has gone wrong. Something has blown up. Something that

will burn itself forever into the mind and the body.

That was April 26, 1986, the day a computer program of the

Chernobyl number four reactor ran amok during an experiment and

caused a blast that spewed radiation over Ukraine, Belarus and

Russia, and millions of people worldwide.

The Earth’s biggest nuclear disaster, releasing 200 times

the radioactivity of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs


But now the 51-year-old Ivanov is back at Chernobyl–the

new cyber-age Chernobyl that presents a smooth and successful

face to the world.

Like 12,000 others, he is drawing a daily living from the

surviving part of the plant that has brought anxiety, sickness

or death to unaccounted numbers of people.

“Why do I stay here?” says the soft-spoken nuclear

technician who lost his home, some of his neighbors and his

health in the catastrophe. “It’s very simple. I like the work–

and I have nowhere else to go.”

Ivanov and his fellow workers are part of Chernobyl’s

weirdest paradox: The plant that hit Ukraine with billions of

dollars in social and safety costs since 1986 is now the

country’s leading industrial moneymaker.

That’s the reason why, in spite of multi-billion-dollar

pledges made at this month’s G-7 meeting of industrial nations,

the ailing plant may never be closed down.

“Things are much safer these days,” says Ivanov with a wan

smile. “It used to take 16 seconds to respond to an urgent

situation. Now it takes only two.”

The directors recite this like a litany. Everyone at the

plant wants to believe what their directors say. Chernobyl is

not only safe now, they insist, but one of the world’s 20 most

secure power stations.

“Security is our first priority,” says Vladislav Gavrilin,

the plant’s deputy director. “Last year, we were able to lower

emission levels twice. And we’re still lowering them.”

These assurances are at odds with the conclusions of

several international organizations that have studied

Chernobyl’s two remaining operating reactors and the leaking

sarcophagus covering number four.

Last year, the United States energy department reported,

“today conditions at the Chernobyl nuclear plant are in many

ways worse than those that existed prior to the disastrous

accident. Serious problems abound in nearly every facet of the

operation, raising the spectre of another accident.”

Plant officials speak optimistically about improving safety

by reducing human error. But according to most experts, the root

causes of the continuing danger at Chernobyl are basic

structural faults.

The RBMK-design reactors–15 of them still functioning in

East Europe and the former Soviet Union–have no containment

system for radiation in case of an accident.

Because they’re built around an unstable graphite core,

they are difficult to control in emergency situations,

dangerously susceptible to fires and in need of elaborate

control systems to prevent them from heating up and exploding.

Furthermore, the damaged reactor number four is covered by

a “sarcophagus” that is badly cracked and oozing radiation,

despite a patch-and-paint job undertaken by the plant.

Scientists fear that movement of nuclear fuel left in the

base of the reactor could touch off another thermal blast.

At least 50 feet away from the reactor, Geiger counters

begin to beep frantically. Instead of registering a normal 0.14

units of radiation, they jump to more than 5.0, a level that

should not be tolerated for more than a couple of minutes.

But, says the Ukrainian environment ministry’s nuclear

adviser Konstantin Rudy, the most immediate problem is spreading


“Our main worry is water. The plains around the River

Pripyat (near Chernobyl) are contaminated. We expected flooding

this year, and if the Pripyat pours radiation into the Dnieper,

more than 20 million people will have polluted drinking water.”

A week after the interview, water levels rose and health

authorities were making evacuation plans for areas around the


Ukrainians and their neighbors are not the only ones

troubled by the Chernobyl nuclear monster.

The West has pledged $2.3 billion in aid to close the plant

by the year 2000, including the development of two new reactors

to replace Chernobyl’s operating ones. That move infuriates

Ukraine’s Greenpeace campaigners who say the only solution is to

tap new sources of energy such as wind, water and solar power.

But, plant officials say, although Chernobyl produces less

than 6 per cent of Ukraine’s total electrical power, it’s

unlikely that the disaster site will close down any time soon.

“International experts tell us it would take five years of

planning before any technical work begins,” argued chief

engineer Vladimir Chuganov. “The five-year period hasn’t even

begun and there’s no plan. But the main thing is, we’re

operating and producing something valuable. If you shut us down

you’re taking money out of the national budget.”

Less than 5 per cent of the Ukrainian budget is spent on

repairing the effects of Chernobyl, but only because the

struggling country cannot afford to pay the far larger share

that the damage demands. Plant officials say that as long as the

reactors are operating, they’re making sure that small sum

doesn’t become even slighter.

Employees of Chernobyl, even those who worry about their

health and security, would only agree.

In a country where unemployment and underemployment are

growing daily, and those with jobs are lucky to see a paycheque,

the hulking stability of the Chernobyl reactors is their only

hope for staying alive.

For the workers this is survival at its most basic–a

short-term solution that may rob them of a future they have

decided they cannot afford; a brand of resignation that harks

back to a primitive age when labor was exchanged for life and

health, and considered a fair bargain.

About 50 kilometres away in the dormitory town of Slavutich

are people who live even closer to the knife’s edge than Victor

Ivanov. Chernobyl gave birth to the town. And the residents

depend completely on the plant for their food and shelter.

At the bleak railway station, a group of workers gather in

driving snow. The smell of vodka hangs in the mist.

“You want to know how we live?” chuckles Nikolai Kalita.


A stocky dark-haired construction worker in his 40s, Kalita

recently finished painting the radioactive sarcophagus covering

reactor number four–a job that allows a maximum exposure of 15

minutes a day, though he admits to working twice that time


Although his reward was supposed to be $100 a month, he was

more often paid in coupons that could be exchanged for food at a

handful of stores.

The Chernobyl plant earns $233 million a year on paper. But

in reality it only collects 20 per cent of the fees its

consumers are billed, and earlier this year officials threatened

to shut down one reactor because money for fuel was running


Plant managers say that the workers are paid in spite of

the cash flow problem. But Kalita and others shake their heads

with wry smiles.

“We don’t know why we don’t get paid,” he says. “But we

wouldn’t start a protest or join a union, because we’d lose our


Kalita and his friends spend more than an hour a day

commuting to and from work on the Chernobyl electric railway.

Afterward, they hang around the station in miserably cold

weather because it’s better than going home.

Home, for Kalita and his 26-year-old wife Dalina, is a one-

room communal flat in barracks-like buildings surrounded by a

smell of bad drains. Their bed-sitting room is spotlessly clean

but crammed with the memorabilia of lives that have never quite


They share their toilet and kitchen with the next-door

neighbors–one room fills both purposes. And their most

important possession, a television set, takes pride of place

near their bed.

But difficult though their lives are, they are still doing

better than some plant workers who have lost their jobs, a hint

of what would happen if the Chernobyl complex closed.

“I’m supposed to be a builder,” said 37-year-old Leonid

Berevinok, lighting a cigarette with burn-scarred and yellowed

hands. “Now I don’t know what I am.”

To get by, Berevinok is doing a temporary job with a

private company that works the radioactive land around

Chernobyl. Berevinok cuts down contaminated trees for lumber, he

says, and receives $50 a month in return. Where the lumber goes

is of no more interest to him than why his boss registers his

salary at twice the amount he actually gets.


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