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OP-ED: Chernobyl
April 26, 2014, 05:00 AM By Michelle Carter

Michelle Carter

While Russian President Vladimir Putin is amassing troops along the border of eastern Ukraine after his move on Crimea, just over the border in the former Soviet republic sits one thing Putin most decidedly does NOT want — the leaking hulk of Chernobyl nuclear reactor No. 4.

Twenty-eight years ago today, that reactor blew just 3 percent of its radioactive material into the atmosphere and launched the world’s worst technological catastrophe. On April 26, 1986, this Soviet-made disaster spewed a plume of radioactivity 200 times that released at Hiroshima and Nagasaki into the skies over Europe, claimed uncounted lives, seeded an epidemic of cancers and left huge swaths of land a Dead Zone to this day.

The world only discovered the horrific accident when detectors in Scandinavia registered potent levels of radiation. A study of wind patterns traced the origin to Chernobyl, but the Soviet Union and its new president, Mikhail Gorbachev, denied the reports and sent its children in Ukraine and Belarus to march in May Day parades under that nuclear rain. Iodine tablets that would have saved young lives were withheld until five days later when the tragedy could no longer be denied. Too late, much too late.

Not a few Sovietologists have placed Chernobyl as the first of a line of falling dominos that led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union four-plus years later. It appears that Putin wants to recreate the U.S.S.R. or at least the power that it flexed. But with that power would come responsibilities, not the least of which would be dealing with the remaining 97 percent of the radioactive material that continues to smolder 28 years later in the festering ruin of Chernobyl reactor No. 4.

Shortly after the accident, a containment structure or “sarcophagus” was hastily assembled over the still-burning reactor but, over time, this temporary structure began to leak. In 1997, the realization that the reactor still posed a serious environmental threat to the rest of the world led the G7 group of nations and the European Union to lay out a plan for building a permanent containment structure.

Moving at the usual glacial pace when governments must agree, work finally began in 2010 with a budget of $2.1 billion. Seventeen countries (including the United States and Russia) pledged sufficient funds to launch the project. However, now it’s increasingly clear to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which is overseeing the effort, that the new sarcophagus cannot be finished by the end of 2015, as planned, and far more money will be needed if it’s ever to be completed.

Now toss into the mix the heightened border tension between Russia and eastern Ukraine, Kiev’s dwindling resources and Moscow’s decision to withhold its pledge to the sarcophagus project.

It’s impossible to predict whether Putin will move to annex eastern Ukraine, as he did to the Crimean Peninsula, but responsibility for the toxic stew the Soviets left simmering just 50 kilometers across Russia’s western border must play a part in his decision.

Of course, all this presumes that Russia’s president cares enough to protect his people — this time.

Michelle Carter is the former managing editor of The San Mateo Times. The author of Children of Chernobyl: Raising Hope From the Ashes (Augsburg, 1993), she has traveled extensively in the Chernobyl region. For the year 1995, she served as journalist-in-residence for the United States Information Agency in Moscow.



Tags: chernobyl, reactor, border, soviet, putin, ukraine,

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