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23.06.2009 | Halya Coynash

Ongoing legacy of lies

   

However sternly we tell children not to lie, they learn soon enough about all the different shades of truth. Many learn painfully about lies which brook no forgiveness. 23 years ago the Soviet regime tried to hide from its people and the international community the truth about the most terrible nuclear disaster the world has yet experienced. We will never know if they would have continued to conceal the tragedy to the people most directly affected if the world had not learned all too immediately that nuclear fallout knows no borders.

Party officials sent children out onto the streets for Mayday parades. As, of course, they had for decades, only in those spring days it was children who were most at risk from radiation and it is hard to find forgiveness for a regime so cynically willing to place young lives in jeopardy.

Many believe that Chernobyl marked the beginning of the end for the Soviet regime, exposing its total moral bankruptcy. Certainly in Ukraine, environmental groups were at the forefront of opposition to the regime and affirmation of people’s rights.

It is a matter of debate whether the world has ever been told the truth about the consequences of Chernobyl, and the problem no longer lies with the Soviet authorities. Bemusement was felt by many Ukrainians during the events to mark the twentieth anniversary on 26 April 2006 when the International Atomic Energy Agency and WHO appeared unaware of the real human cost of the tragedy. 

It is not my wish to discuss this issue here, mainly because in 2009, with another anniversary approaching, there is a more immediate issue fraught with potential danger and bearing all the hallmarks of Soviet contempt for democratic mechanisms.

A major problem for every country with nuclear power is what to do with highly dangerous radioactive waste. There is an additional problem in Ukraine because of large amounts of spent waste in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone - an area which, because of the disaster, will remain no man’s land for centuries. Western governments have taken a role not only in plans to make the Sarcophagus enclosing the damaged reactor secure, but also to safely store spent nuclear waste. An agreement was reached with international donors to pay a US company Holtec International 2 million Euros for providing storage facilities at Chernobyl for spent waste from the three other (now shut down) reactors of the Chernobyl plant.

So far, so clear, only that there are some problems. Ukraine’s Energoatom signed an agreement in May 2008 with Holtec to provide storage facilities at Chernobyl for spent nuclear waste from three of the four other nuclear power plants in Ukraine.  It is entirely unclear whether the international donors financing Holtec’s storage of Chernobyl waste are aware of this agreement. It is even less evident how they will respond to the report released by a government official last week that Holtec’s price has doubled to 4 million Euros. If the donors refuse to pay, is it Ukraine’s taxpayers who will pay for this extraordinary change to a winning - and agreed - bid? 

Among these taxpayers are many who have spoken out against the planned centralized storage facility at Chernobyl. They do not oppose dry storage facilities per se, but believe they should be located at each nuclear power plant to minimize the danger of transportation by railway through populated areas. Even more importantly, they warn of the enormous danger of any building work whatsoever at Chernobyl (for example, the planned clearing of 8.6 hectares of pine trees) which must inevitably spread radioactive particles.  It should be mentioned that a Presidential Decree from 13 August 2007 formalizes Chernobyl’s no man’s land status and prohibits the placing on its territory of any constructions, aside from the Sarcophagus.

Who Is Interested In what laws say?

Environmentalists can cite a huge number of other laws which the planned centralized storage facility infringes. These laws were also mentioned in the entirely official State Environmental Impact Assessment which the Ministry for Environmental Protection made public and posted on its website in August 2007. This gave a negative assessment rejecting the planned centralized storage facility.

Worth noting that Energoatom has an enormous interest in this project which removes a headache for them, since they will not be responsible for what happens in the Chernobyl zone and won’t have to answer, as they do now, for the safety of storage facilities near functioning nuclear power plants. Holtec clearly has a strong financial incentive.  

Less than a year later, and blithely oblivious to the law and Ukraine’s commitment, at very least, to ensure public participation in decision-making under the Aarhus Convention, Energoatom signed an agreement with Holtec to build precisely what the official document stated was not permissible.  Then on 4 February 2009 the Cabinet of Ministers approved a TEO (technical and economic justification) for precisely the construction at Chernobyl of this centralized storage facility for waste from all nuclear power plants.  Environmental groups are planning to challenge this disregard for the country’s own mechanisms, not to mention the public, in court.

Any subject related to nuclear power is ridden with controversy. Moreover the recent "gas war", has made us all, including Slovakians, well aware of the need for energy independence, and there are seldom any easy answers.

There are, however, mechanisms of public consultation and participation in decision-making and these have been grossly flouted.

The agreement between Energoatom and Holtec fell between two anniversaries: that of the Chernobyl Disaster and the tenth anniversary in June 2008 of the Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters. The title of this vital, post-Chernobyl, Convention needs little explanation - only compliance.  Unfortunately, Ukraine was in June last year criticized for the second time over its continued failure to properly implement the accord. The Ukrainian government is due to report to the Aarhus Compliance Committee in May on the measures it has taken to rectify the situation.

Safe to assume that the Cabinet of Ministers’ extraordinary behaviour in "slipping in" the planned construction of a centralized spent nuclear waste storage facility will not be on the Government’s list of measures "proving" compliance. 

It is not, however, safe to assume that Ukrainians will remain silent when the authorities run roughshod over their right to a safe environment and to democratic participation in decision-making. 23 years ago the Soviet Union betrayed its own people, trying to conceal disaster at the expense of people’s safety and right to know.  They earned contempt and well-deserved resistance.  Any attempts to bypass hard-won democratic mechanisms must be equally rejected now.

 

Theoriginal of this article was published in Slovakian in Zahraničná politika 2/2009 here: http://www.zahranicnapolitika.sk/?id=741&id=781 and in English at: http://www.zahranicnapolitika.sk/index.php?id=804 (the time references in the text are out of date, however the information is still current)

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