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Analysis & Opinion
18.04.11 Containing Funds
By Tom Balmforth

Ukraine is seeking almost ?750 million in funding to seal the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl, that sparked the world’s worst nuclear catastrophe 25 years ago. But the recent disaster at the Fukushima power plant in Japan may make it harder to get the money together. Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich will host an international conference in Kiev starting Tuesday, where he will court donors for a key new containment unit that will be slid over Chernobyl’s reactor number four.

When the Soviet authorities finally admitted the scale of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster 25 years ago and ordered the evacuation of around a quarter of a million local residents, emergency workers scrambled to erect a containment unit of concrete and steel to staunch leaking radiation. A quarter of a century on, the Western wall of the makeshift containment unit has started crumbling and is propped up by scaffolding structures, while costly new containers for spent fuel are needed as well.

The Chernobyl disaster has landed back in the spotlight after a magnitude nine earthquake off the north-east coast of Japan triggered a sequence of devastation that seriously damaged several nuclear reactors in the prefecture of Fukushima. On April 12, Tokyo raised the severity of its emergency to level seven – the same as Chernobyl’s ranking – although some are skeptical of the decision, while Russia’s energy minister last week said Japan is exaggerating the scale of the crisis to wriggle out of insurance conundrums.

But despite increased media interest, Ukraine’s government has warned that fundraising may be harder this time round, while governments are cutting spending across the world. Moreover, the Japan crisis has spurred speculation that Tokyo will be a less generous donor as it tightens purse strings and perhaps diverts funding, since it became the focus of global interest in the nuclear energy sector. Japan has contributed ?45.7 million, the seventh largest sum from global donors, in the fundraising mission that began in 1997 to make Ukraine’s infamous nuclear reactor safer. Russia has contributed ?15.3 million, placing it 11th.

But Japan’s ambassador to Ukraine has made public assurances that Japanese money will be pumped in. Yet only the commemorations and conference hosted by Yanukovich will be the test of donor commitments, as no parties are obliged to contribute a specific amount. Fifty nations are attending the conference.

Nonetheless, the project is already underway under the auspices of the “Novarka” joint venture. Novarka, led by France’s companies Vinci and Bouygues, will build the new “sarcophagus,” which will be 105 meters high and almost two soccer fields (150 meters) wide. The unit, dubbed “New Safe Confinement,” is due to be completed by 2015 and is expected to last for 100 years. It is being constructed 250 meters to the west of reactor number four to save workers being exposed to leaking radiation, and will be slid over the existing container once it is completed.

According to the London-based European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which is brokering the fund-raising mission, ?990 million has already been raised, but a further ?740 million is still needed. The “New Safe Confinement” project has already been set in motion by Vinci. There are already positive signs ahead of the conference. The European Union, which has been one of the most consistent donors on Chernobyl, will have allayed fears of a shortfall in funding on Monday, when European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso was reported by Interfax to have pledged ?110 million to the new containment unit. But extra cash is also required to finance the ?250 million dry storage facility for the more than 20,000 spent fuel assemblies. The complete program to transform the site of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant into an environmentally safe state will cost ?1.54 billion.

One Greenpeace worker told Russia Profile that there have been problems with financing and planning for years so far, suggesting that a repeat shortfall could occur again this time. “The new sarcophagus has been planned and they have been trying to raise money since the early 1990s," said Aslihan Tumer, a nuclear campaigner for Greenpeace International. "The cost kept on increasing to now three times higher than the original estimate, at around ?1.6 billion. While the cost increased, the original time frame kept on shifting as well, now hoping it would be ready in 2015, which is hopeful thinking, rather than a plan. Even if they manage to raise the money there are still many problems in actually building the sarcophagus and even if it is built it will again be a temporary solution expected to be able to contain radiation for 100 years," she said.

Thirty-one workers and firefighters died during the three weeks of the Chernobyl meltdown, while the enormous knock-on health effects for hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians and Belarusians is hard to calculate. “Obviously, we don’t have enough money in the budget for the sarcophagus, but I’m sure all the other countries will make contributions,” said 70-year-old Nikolai Tolkachev, adding that he was part of the Chernobyl-wide containment effort for 21 days after the explosion. He has never returned to Chernobyl where he is from, even to see his parents who are buried there. Since the disaster, he has often been taken ill and even hospitalized. In 1995 the government officially recognized him as “disabled as a result of the disaster,” he said.
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