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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Closing Chernobyl Raises Fears of Financial Toll

CHERNOBYL, Ukraine — Shift master Viktor Kuchinsky pointed at a large white button on a huge control panel. In a month’s time, on Dec. 15, a worker will press it and shut down the infamous Chernobyl power station for good.

"This button will be pressed to stop Chernobyl," he said, wearing protective clothing to shield him from radiation in a control room where the button, too, was shrouded by a plastic cover.

Kuchinsky and other workers regret the closure and fear losing jobs in a remote area with few alternatives. They say closing the plant is unnecessary and a waste of resources in a poor country that can ill afford it.

"The decision to close the station is purely political, and our workers are sidelined to suit Ukraine’s momentary interests," said Alexei Lych, Chernobyl’s trade union boss.

But the West knows Chernobyl as the site of the world’s worst peacetime nuclear accident, when the No. 4 reactor exploded in 1986, spewing clouds of radioactive dust across Europe.

Officially, 31 people were killed, mostly firemen who died immediately after the explosion. Independent experts say several thousand "liquidators," or emergency workers, and local residents died of diseases caused by radioactivity, while thousands more suffer from forms of cancer and blood disease.

In addition, hundreds of thousands of people in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus had to abandon their homes in a vast exclusion zone around the plant. Pripyat, the once-bustling 50,000-strong settlement of Chernobyl workers, was evacuated overnight.

Western financial aid is in the pipeline to help cushion the closure of the plant Europe wants dearly to forget.

But speaking to reporters late Thursday, Kuchinsky made clear he would not share the relief felt by those who see Chernobyl as a powerful symbol of the dangers of nuclear power.

"I have devoted all my life to this work, and now they are making me terminate it," he said. "The plant is being stopped just as a gesture of good will."

Reactor No. 2 was shut down after a huge fire in 1991, reinforcing Western fears, while reactor No. 1 was stopped in 1996 at the end of its usable lifespan.

Glum workers say they will close the station on the date agreed by President Leonid Kuchma earlier this year, even though they do not know what they will do for a living afterward. Ukraine also will be hurt since it depends on Chernobyl’s last working reactor for around 5 percent of its electricity.

The Group of Seven leading industrial nations signed an agreement with Ukraine in 1995 to help shut the plant.

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, charged by the wealthy nations with collecting funds for Chernobyl’s closure, said Thursday its board of directors would consider in early December granting Ukraine a loan of $215 million to complete two nuclear reactors to replace Chernobyl.

But many in Ukraine argue that foreign aid is not enough.

Oleh Holoskokov, aide to the station’s director, said Ukraine would need at least $1.5 billion to decommission Chernobyl and ensure social benefits for workers and dependents.

He said only $2 million to $3 million of the $634 million needed to fund social issues had been received.

"Unfortunately, the situation will start getting worse after the closure," he said. "Our primary concern is the personnel. Some 10,000 workers now live well due to their employment at the station."

Holoskokov said the station was very efficient and was working at a record 82.4 percent of its capacity.

Valery Seida, head of Chernobyl’s scientific laboratory, said the last working reactor, originally designed to run for 30 years, would have exhausted its safe lifespan only in 2011.