The Chernobyl Shutdown: End or Continuation of an Era?
Vladimir Belskiy, Counselor, Embassy of Russia
Aleksandr Khumrets, Counselor, Embassy of Belarus
Sergii Korsunskyi, Counselor, Embassy of Ukraine
Co-Sponsored by The Kennan Institute
January 25, 2001—The last working reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power complex in Ukraine was closed on 15 December 2000, over fourteen years after an explosion at the plant's Number Four reactor turned into the world's worst civilian nuclear disaster. But the consequences of that explosion and its aftermath continue to grow, and the possibility of fresh radiation leaks still threatens the region. Consular officers from Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus met with an audience at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars to discuss how their countries are dealing with Chernobyl's ongoing impact.
"Another Chernobyl will mean the end of Ukraine"
Sergeii Korsunskyi,Counselor, Embassy of Ukraine
Sergii Korsunskyi, counselor for Ukraine's Embassy to the United States, opened the meeting by calling Chernobyl "one of the grave symbols in the modern history of Ukraine." He recounted the human costs of the disaster for Ukrainians: 3.5 million victims (1.26 million of whom are children); 160,000 displaced persons; and thousands of deaths. Korsunskyi said that one in every 16 health disorders in Ukraine can be attributed to the effects of Chernobyl; that thyroid cancer there is 15 times what it was before the accident; and that the worst health effects are yet to come. The Chernobyl complex is also encircled by a 20-mile-radius "no-go" zone of contamination that is spreading to the west and that will eventually prompt the evacuation of other towns.
Korsunskyi added that the closing of Chernobyl's last reactor will cost 5,000 workers their jobs and Ukraine 5% of its electricity production, posing a new set of challenges for the country.
Vladimir Belskiy, counselor for Russia's Embassy to the United States, related how unexpected the Chernobyl accident was in the Soviet Union's corridors of power as well as how inadequately prepared the entire country (from firemen to local authorities to high government officials) was for such an event. The aftermath and subsequent public outcry, said Belskiy, spurred the era of glasnost.
But the biggest consequence of Chernobyl for Russia has been the persistence and institutionalization of safety concerns about the country's nuclear industry. Belskiy stated that the Russian State Ministry for Atomic Energy now is constrained by a system of checks and balances-its officials must now appear before the Duma and even in court to defend their practices and priorities. Belskiy also credited the vigorous Russian environmental movement for serving as a watchdog over the nation's nuclear activities.
Despite the fact that 11 reactors of Chernobyl's architecture are still online worldwide, he asserted that Russia is doing everything it can to assure nuclear safety and is seeking international cooperation to this end.
"The relatively small death tolls and lack of grotesque deformities have fooled people about the immeasurable toll of the disaster."
Alexandr Khmurets,Counselor, Embassy of Belarus
Alexandr Khmurets, counselor for Belarus' Embassy to the United States, said that Chernobyl "continues to have a devastating impact on three countries," with the worst effects-health, economic, social, and environmental-to come. Seventy percent of the radioactive fallout from Chernobyl fell on Belarus, contaminating 20% of its forests and immediately ruining 6,000 square kilometers of its agricultural land. One hundred-nine thousand Belorussians have been resettled. Two million people-a quarter of them children-have been directly affected. Thyroid cancer and disorders are occurring 100 times more than normal in some areas, and the rise in such cancers is not expected to peak until the year 2006. Still, as Khmurets bemoaned, "Chernobyl is now largely forgotten" by the international community.
Khmurets added that the perception of contamination has also had ruinous effects on the country's ability to create wealth. While Belarus "used to feed Russia," it now must import everything. Even its safe food products and timber-the latter once the equivalent of hard currency in the region-are now impossible to market. A massive budget deficit has sprung up in an attempt to counteract the economic shortfalls, and Belarus spends 20% of its budget simply to alleviate suffering from Chernobyl and mitigate its economic effects.
Meanwhile, 150,000 square kilometers of Belarus remain contaminated and effectively barren, with the long half-lives of the explosion's released isotopes ensuring that radioactivity will menace the area for most of this century. Khmurets also warned of the possibility of recontamination from a fresh Chernobyl breach. A flood of the plain surrounding the complex could poison the main water supply for millions; the burial sites for waste are not as deep as they need to be; and forest fires threaten to release radioactive materials into huge clouds of smoke.
"The relatively small death tolls and lack of grotesque deformities have fooled people about the immeasurable toll of the disaster," Khmurets concluded. "The area stood a chance to emerge as an optimistic and progressive region after the fall of the Soviet Union, but Chernobyl destroyed this hope." He appealed for international aid and investment in Belarus, saying that its infrastructure was intact and populace well-educated and eager to become self-sufficient.
The audience questioned the three officials on what role the international community should play in the Chernobyl cleanup as well as on the area's current nuclear activities. Belskiy stated that Russia has undertaken measures of "supercontrol" and modernization vis-à-vis the 11 remaining Chernobyl-like reactors, and that it expects these reactors to operate safely for at least 10 to 15 more years. He added that all nuclear activities in Russia are now done in accordance with international norms and standards, and that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) now supervises all Russian nuclear construction abroad for nonproliferation and safety. Russia also has a long-term project for reprocessing other countries' nuclear waste under consideration; while many Russian green movements have criticized the plan, Belskiy said that it is likely to be approved.
Korsunskyi said that another Chernobyl would mean "the end of Ukraine," and that the two new nuclear plants under construction in Ukraine (as well as the reprocessing plant being built at the Chrenobyl site) are proceeding under the strictest international safety guidelines. While the present Ukrainian contamination is beyond repair, $750 million in international funds is being used to shore up the sarcophagus of Chernobyl to prevent further contamination. Korsunskyi stressed that one of Ukraine's biggest needs is foreign investment to generate both jobs and the production of clean food and water. Belskiy added that fewer state and more private initiatives are needed for the rehabilitation of the region's people, natural resources, and economy.
Khmurets said that last year's reprocessing plant accident in Japan should prove to the world that nuclear accidents can happen in developed countries as well as developing ones. He said that the best way to help people in contaminated areas would be to speed up the region's structural economic reforms, and he assured donors that any international aid to Belarus would be kept under the control of international officials.