Ukraine is seeking $1 billion to seal Chernobyl, the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster, and concern is mounting the accident at Fukushima in Japan and a growing debt crisis may make it harder to raise the money.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych will host a conference starting tomorrow in Kiev to get funding for a new containment shelter 25 years after Chernobyl’s No. 4 reactor exploded. European Commission President Jose Barroso, who arrived today, urged states to contribute as a venture involving France’s Vinci SA and Bouygues SA works on the foundations.
“I am confident that those events tomorrow will bring about the desirable results, notably to secure the necessary funds to complete the safety work at the Chernobyl site,” Barroso said at a press conference in the Ukrainian capital.
Japan’s battle to contain four damaged reactors at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant has reignited the debate about Chernobyl, whose makeshift shelter has five years left in its lifespan and still leaks radiation. The Ukrainian government warned aid may fall short as governments cut spending and balk at a fund-raising effort that has been going on since 1997.
“The Fukushima disaster definitely gives a renewed sense of urgency for fixing Chernobyl,” said Mark Hibbs, a senior nuclear analyst at the Carnegie Endowment in Berlin. “Everybody said that Chernobyl could never happen again.”
The conference is part of a week of commemorations centering on the April 26, 1986, meltdown that killed at least 31 plant workers and firefighters in three months and forced the evacuation of a quarter of a million people. The U.S. delegation is being led by Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter.
The meeting, planned before the Japanese earthquake and tsunami damaged the 40-year-old Fukushima plant, has been given new significance, Yanukovych said. Japan on April 12 raised the severity rating at the stricken Fukushima plant to seven, the same as Chernobyl as radiation leaks continue, and Yanukovych said that solving Chernobyl is an international responsibility.
“To overcome a tragedy of such a large scale cannot be done by one country,” Yanukovych said today at the Kiev briefing with Barroso. “Events in Japan showed that such catastrophes are a challenge for all of mankind.”
He said on April 16 that the government expected to raise enough money to build the new Chernobyl shelter.
The outcome of the conference will be a measure of the global willingness to improve nuclear safety and keep the accidents in Ukraine and Japan under control, said Vince Novak, the director of nuclear safety at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which is acting as the broker for the fund-raising effort.
“We want to send a message that we are dealing with Chernobyl successfully and that the international community is ready to deal with Fukushima,” said Novak.
The London-based bank, set up in 1991 to finance projects in former communist Europe, has collected 990 million euros ($1.43 billion) for the new Chernobyl confinement with the European Union and U.S. the two biggest donors.
Another 740 million euros now is needed to complete the structure and add spent-fuel storage facilities for the four reactors, said Ukraine Emergency Minister Viktor Baloga.
The project involves a 105-meter high arched roof that, once assembled on a field next to the damaged reactor, will be rolled into place and sealed for 100 years. After that, workers will be able to dismantle the old structure from inside the protective cowl. Novarka, a joint venture of units of engineering companies Vinci and Bouygues, has already begun work on pouring the concrete base.
The new shelter can proceed because it won’t be completed until 2015 and the Ukrainian government has three years to find the remainder of the financing, Novak said.
The current concrete-and-steel cover was built in a rush as emergency personnel scrambled to clean up deadly radioactive debris that killed the adjacent forest and forced dozens of villages in the area to be abandoned forever. The western wall started collapsing, requiring Chernobyl workers to erect two scaffolding towers in 2008 to prop the unstable structure.
Radiation levels near the reactor are currently about 300 times more than normal in the center of Kiev, the Ukrainian capital 150 kilometers (93 miles) away, according to the site’s chief engineer, Andrii Savin.
While Tokyo Electric Power Co. said the fight to stabilize the Japanese plant will last through June, the two accidents are not comparable, according to Denis Flory, the deputy director general at the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency.
“They are very different,” he said at a press conference on April 12. Unlike Fukushima, “Chernobyl was a huge explosion and you have a huge graphite fire for a number of days. It had the power to move all this radiation in the atmosphere and spread it around the world.”
The EU has donated 250 million euros to secure Chernobyl. The European Commission will give another 110 million euros from its budget, Barroso said today.
The U.S. is the second-biggest donor, with 182.8 million euros, while Ukraine, which has been relying on an international bailout since the global financial crisis, has given 45 million euros to the fund. Baloga, the emergency minister, said April 8 that the consequences of Chernobyl cost Ukraine $12 billion since independence in 1991. Russia is 11th on the current donor list, at 15.3 million euros.
“The U.S. has been a substantial supporter of Chernobyl,” Norman Eisen, U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic and a former special counsel to President Barack Obama, said in Prague on April 14. “There’s always been concern” about falling short of the target, “but folks are working very hard on this.”