Operators shut down the Chernobyl nuclear power plant with the flip of a switch today, closing the facility for good 14 years after it spawned the world’s worst nuclear accident.
The simple procedure ended the long, troubled run of a facility that became a synonym for nuclear fears and the dangers of atomic power.
Ukraine President Leonid Kuchma gave the shutdown order from Kiev over a video linkup with the plant, located some 85 miles away. “To fulfill the state decision and Ukraine’s international obligations, I hereby order to start work for the premature stoppage of the operation of reactor No. 3 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant,” Kuchma said.
At 1:16 p.m. today, Chernobyl shift chief Oleksandr Yelchishchev turned the black AZ (short for “rapid emergency defense”) switch, activating the automatic safety system of the plant’s only working reactor and sending containment rods sliding into the reactor core.
Within seconds, a dial showed the reactor’s output dropping to zero. The procedure went flawlessly, the plant reported.
The shutdown, which followed years of intense international pressure, should erase the danger of future accidents at the plant.
Yet Ukraine will suffer the effects of the 1986 Chernobyl accident for years to come: Millions of its citizens are affected by radiation-related ailments.
The leaders of this former Soviet republic said they were undertaking a historic mission in closing down the last functioning reactor at Chernobyl.
“The world will become a safer place. People will sleep in peace,” Kuchma said Thursday during a ceremony to commemorate the shutdown.
A Disastrous Cover-up
The plant’s last reactor, the one shut down today, was reactor No. 3. It is located in the same building as reactor No. 4, which exploded and caught fire on April 26, 1986, contaminating vast areas of Ukraine, Russia and Belarus and spewing a radioactive cloud over Europe.
The Kremlin tried to conceal the accident and delayed evacuation of people from nearby towns for days. Firefighters and other workers who were the first at the destroyed reactor had little or no protection from radiation.
Those moves only added to the death toll: More than 4,000 cleanup workers have died since and 70,000 have been disabled by radiation in Ukraine alone. About 3.4 million of Ukraine’s 50 million people, including some 1.26 million children, are considered affected by Chernobyl.
The plant has experienced numerous malfunctions since. Many Ukrainians, tired of living with radiation scares, were relieved at its closure.
For others, though, the shutdown means lost electricity and lost jobs.
Kuchma, who on Thursday toured the ill-fated plant and tidy Slavutych, the town where Chernobyl workers live, was confronted by dozens of gloomy protesters wearing black armbands. Thousands from among the plant’s 6,000 workers will be laid off.
“I have not seen anything better than this,” Yevhen Laptsov, a Chernobyl electrician who lives in Slavutych, said of his town. “I have two small children and we all live in this beautiful town. I’m very much afraid of the closure.”
For years, energy-strapped Ukraine faced pressure from environmental groups and foreign leaders to close Chernobyl. But it refused to do so, citing the electricity the plant provided and demanding foreign aid in return. Kuchma finally pledged to shut down Chernobyl during a visit by President Clinton earlier this year.
The European Commission has approved a $585 million loan to help Ukraine build two new reactors to make up for Chernobyl’s electricity. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development is to chip in another $215 million.
Towards the Future
Despite the closure, much remains to be done at Chernobyl.
Ukraine plans to construct a new casing for the mammoth concrete and steel sarcophagus covering the ruined reactor No. 4. There is no decision yet on what to do with the tons of radioactive dust and nuclear fuel still inside, and work on making the structure environmentally safe will take decades.
It also will take years to unload nuclear fuel from the three other Chernobyl reactors.
“We shall continue to bear this,” a weary Kuchma said Thursday in Slavutych. “This is our fate.”