Fourteen years after the world’s worst nuclear accident sent plumes of radioactivity and shivers of fear across Europe, Ukraine announced Monday that it will close the entire Chernobyl nuclear plant in December.
President Leonid D. Kuchma disclosed the plans to shut the facility, responsible for the deaths of at least 31 people and the poisoning of vast acres of farmland, with President Clinton at his side. Clinton pledged $78 million to help pay for the reconstruction of a faulty concrete-and-steel structure that envelops the ruined reactor No. 4 at Chernobyl.
“This is a hopeful moment. It is also a moment when we remember those who suffered as a result of the accident there,” Clinton said.
He said the United States also will provide $2 million to improve safety at Ukraine’s other nuclear power plants, from which the nation gets 40% of its electricity. All told, a Clinton administration official said, the United States has committed itself over the past five years to spending about $300 million toward costs linked to the disaster.
While the plant’s closing had been expected, the precise date, Dec. 15, had not been announced. The administration hopes that the announcement will make it easier to collect pledges of international support at a meeting in Berlin in July.
The tragedy at Chernobyl, about 80 miles north of Kiev, began April 26, 1986. Reactor No. 4 exploded, spewing 200 times as much radiation as the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. Estimates of the number of people who have died in the past 14 years as a result of the accident vary widely. Thousands are thought to be suffering from radiation-related illnesses.
An 18-mile exclusionary zone was established, forcing 135,000 people to abandon their homes, farms and villages. A 24-story sarcophagus, now badly cracked and leaking, was constructed to seal off the 200 tons of radioactive gunk--melted fuel, sand, concrete and debris from the explosion and fire. And now at least $750 million needs to be spent for a new containment system.
Radiation hot spots are still turning up. Thyroid cancers among children who lived downwind of the plant are increasing. And, coming seven years after the less-serious nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, the Chernobyl accident raised grave doubts among the public about the safety of nuclear power.
On the flight here Monday from Moscow, Air Force One carried Clinton within sight of the plant, the sun glinting off the cooling towers in the summer haze.
The visit to Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, was the final stop on the president’s weeklong journey to Portugal, Germany, Russia and Ukraine. He left for Washington on Monday evening and is scheduled to leave the United States again Wednesday for a memorial service in Tokyo for the late Japanese prime minister, Keizo Obuchi.
The United States and Ukraine also signed a nuclear fuel agreement, and Clinton announced plans to begin a program to help small private enterprises get needed credit.
Ukraine once was the breadbasket of the Soviet Union; now it is something of an economic basket case. It achieved independence nine years ago during the collapse of the Soviet Union and has suffered through eight consecutive years of declining gross domestic product. Since the early 1990s, according to the State Department, the standard of living for most Ukrainian citizens has declined more than 50%.
The nuclear fuel agreement was signed by Energy Secretary Bill Richardson and Serhiy Tulub, the Ukrainian energy minister. It will enable Ukraine to certify the reliability of new suppliers of nuclear fuel, permitting it to find alternative fuel sources and cut its fuel costs for its remaining nuclear power plants.
The White House touted the Chernobyl announcement as “a major milestone” for Ukraine and also for the United States and the leading industrial democracies, which have pressured Ukraine to close the facility.
It said the United States would pay to help jump-start businesses in the town of Slavutych, a community near Chernobyl, to help it overcome the impact that the plant’s closure will have on local workers, among them scientists and engineers who will lose their jobs. And the United States will work with Ukraine and the industrial democracies to gather funds to build the second sarcophagus.
Clinton made no mention of Chernobyl during a speech to tens of thousands of Ukrainians who gathered in St. Michael’s Square in Kiev. Explaining that decision, a White House aide said the president was mindful of the “political sensitivity” associated with the accident.
In the speech, Clinton acknowledged the problems the country has had to face as it seeks to establish a free-market economy.
Four times, he told the cheering crowd in Ukrainian to keep fighting.
“Communism has lost in Ukraine, but a full commitment to free-market democracy has not yet won. If your children are to live their dreams, it must win,” he said to a crowd made up largely of teenagers and 20-somethings attracted not only by the promise of a speech by Clinton but appearances by several leading rock groups. No local politicians took part in the rally.
“We reject the idea that the eastern border of Europe is the western border of Ukraine,” the president said, encouraging Ukraine to pursue eventual membership in the European Union.
The crowd had been gathering for three hours in temperatures above 80 degrees until it spilled out beyond the square, the size of a football field, and stretched at least a block down a tree-lined boulevard.
Behind the president rose the towers of St. Michael’s Monastery, the gold onion domes gleaming in the bright sun. The church, painted baby blue and white, is a replica of one that had stood at the same location before it was destroyed by Communist authorities. The formal blessing of the new structure took place last week.
“Ukraine has endured oppressors,” Clinton said. “Today the oppressors are gone. Stalin is gone. The Nazis are gone. The Soviet Union is gone. Russia is working to build a new society. But you, the people of Ukraine, you are still here, stronger than ever.”