EU helps finance new Chernobyl sarcophagus

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Ukraine is looking to the world today (19 April) to pledge more funds to help it contain the consequences of history's worst nuclear accident. The EU, which has so far committed the lion's share to Chernobyl-related projects, committed another €110 million for a new sarcophagus, sealing the damaged reactor at least until the end of the century.

Leaders from the Group of Eight industrial powers and the European Union are gathering in Kiev for a conference marking 25 years since the Chernobyl disaster, which has been brought into sharper focus by the nuclear crisis at Fukushima in Japan.

A European-backed venture foresees construction of a new shell over Chernobyl's No. 4 reactor, which blew up in April 1986, to contain radioactivity leaking through a makeshift shelter from hundreds of tonnes of radioactive material still inside.

European Commission President José Manuel Barroso said on Monday that the Commission would allocate an extra 110 million euros towards this and allied Chernobyl projects.

"We hope our key partners will also step up their contributions in order to complete the works of the shelter by 2015," he said.

But a Commission official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said total pledges were likely to come far below the 740 million euros that Ukraine sought.

"If we get more than 500 million euros we will regard it as a success," the official said, adding that there was a question mark over the contribution from Japan, normally one of the main donors on Chernobyl.

"They are now looking to see how much money there is to solve their own problems," the official said.

Week of commemorations

Tuesday's "donors' conference" launches a week of commemorations in Ukraine marking the Soviet-era explosion and fire at the Chernobyl plant, located on Ukraine's northern border with Belarus.

A prevailing southeast wind carried a cloud of radioactivity over Belarus and Russia and on into parts of northern Europe.

The official short-term death toll from the accident was 31, but many more died of radiation-related sicknesses such as cancer. The total death toll and long-term health effects remain a subject of intense debate.

Prypyat, the town closest to the site, is now an eerie ghost town at the centre of a largely uninhabited exclusion zone with a radius of 30 km (19 miles).

A makeshift shelter or 'sarcophagus' erected over the damaged reactor within eight months of the accident has developed cracks and holes, and is no longer considered reliable.

The new containment projects foresee construction of a convex structure more than 100 metres high that will slide into place over the damaged reactor, sealing it at least until the end of the century.

During that time, work can be undertaken to dismantle the present shelter and move radioactive material to a safer place.

World leaders attending the conference include French Prime Minister François Fillon, whose country is current chairman of the G8, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Some leaders may visit the Chernobyl site itself, about 110 km (68 miles) north of the capital.

Chernobyl will affect many generations and it will take another 575 years until the territory will be completely clean from radiation, Ukraine's deputy economy minister told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview.

(EURACTIV with Reuters.)

On the morning of 26 April 1986, reactor four of a Soviet nuclear power plant at Chernobyl (now Ukraine) exploded. The accident created panic in Eastern and Western Europe in the following weeks and led to political fallout for the nuclear sector when several countries, in subsequent years, decided to halt the development of new nuclear power plants and put in place nuclear phase-out plans.

However, this bleak prospect for the nuclear sector changed when global warming and the recent supply-demand driven price explosion of oil took hold of the political agenda and nuclear re-emerged as a potential source of Europe's future energy mix. 

The European Commission has so far committed a lion's share - some €470 million - to Chernobyl-related projects, mainly for nuclear safety, but also on programmes to help the local population and provide affected families with access to quality healthcare.

But the recent disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, following a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and a giant tsunami in Japan on 11 March also became a game changer.

According to experts, Japan's nuclear crisis will speed the elimination of nuclear power from some European countries and render many planned projects too risky, ultimately increasing Europe's dependence on gas.

Both Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear disasters are rated to the highest scale of seven on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES).

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