Chernobyl Still Plages Europe

Workers at the stricken Chernobyl nuclear plant have found a chunk of highly radioactive debris sitting on the roof of the sarcophagus

which entombs the wreckage of the world’s worst nuclear disaster.

The 8-inch fragment, found last week, emits radiation of some 200 Roentgen an hour at close range, which is thousands of times higher than normal background radiation.

No one knows how it got there or how long it has been there, emitting deadly levels of radiation 150,000 times normal level. Only eight inches long, it poses a lethal threat to all who approach it.

One possibility is that the fuel piece could have been blown onto the roof through a ventilation shaft located between the ruined reactor No. 4 and Chernobyl’s only working reactor, No. 3, said Svetlana Linkevych, a spokeswoman for sarcophagus workers.

Find Came During Operation

The deadly find came as the Ukrainians appeared determined to re-start Reactor No. 3, the only one of four still working. It had been closed down for four days after a short-circuit in the reactor’s decrepit power plant.

This last reactor is due to close down permanently on December 15th and it was hoped that it would not be re-started. But the Ukraine is so desperate for energy that it has been decided to run it to the deadline.

The find of the radioactive fragment on the roof raises fears that this is long not the end of the Chernobyl saga. It could have been blown through a ventilator shaft between Reactor 3 and Reactor 4.

It was Reactor 4 which melted down on April 26th, 1986 and exploded, spewing 500 times the radiation of the Hiroshima nuclear bomb into the atmosphere. Estimates of the death toll in the Ukraine alone over the years vary from 15,000 to 30,000.

The reactor was rapidly encased in a thick concrete sarcophagus. Scientists warn that the sarcophagus is cracking up and that the red-hot, boiling nuclear waste could be burying itself deep into the ground below, threatening water supplies.

Some 180 tons of nuclear fuel were located in the reactor at the moment of its explosion, and scientists have accounted for only 140 tons of it.

Repairing Reactor Costly

With the help of foreign aid, Ukraine is trying to make the leaky structure environmentally safe. It is believed to contain tons of radioactive fuel and dust.

The closure of Chernobyl comes at a price. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development is due to issue a $215 loan for two new nuclear rectors to take its place. They are already half completed.

Greenpeace is urging the bank to block the rest of the funds, since an Austrian report from the scene describes the new reactors as “particularly hazardous” in design and construction. They see they next tragedy already in the making.

Once reactor 3 does close down, the problem remains of how to decommission all four reactors, including the remains of Reactor 4. At the moment scientists are baffled by the problem of how to get that 8 inch piece of deadly rubbish off the roof.

The legacy of Chernobyl, scientists warn, will be with us for centuries, if not millennia. It will remain as a reminder that nuclear power comes at a heavy price.

Ukraine has promised to close down the plant on Dec. 15 following pressure from Western nations, domestic and foreign environmental groups and ordinary Ukrainians concerned about the site’s safety.

ABCNEWS’ Sue Masterman and The Associated Press contributed to this report.