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Chernobyl limps towards shutdown

KIEV, Ukraine -- Two days before Chernobyl's nuclear power station is due to be decommissioned, engineers are battling to fire it up.

The last operating reactor at Chernobyl -- the notorious site of the world's worst nuclear accident in 1986 -- was shutdown last week because of technical problems.

Now, officials are racing against the clock to re-start the generator called simply Number Three so the world will be able to see it switched off.

Chernobyl has provided Ukraine with around five percent of its electricity from its last working reactor ever since the 1986 explosion and meltdown that killed 30 firemen and released a radiation cloud that has claimed thousands of lives since.

Stanislav Shekstelo, chief spokesman for the station, said on Wednesday that there was now no time to re-start the reactor fully, so technicians planned to turn it on "symbolically" for Friday's closing ceremony.

"The reactor will not be attached to the national grid, we're just going to turn it on to its minimum power output. We plan to do this sometime around midnight," he said.

Friday's closure will be marked by a gala performance in the Ukrainian capital Kiev, as President Leonid Kuchma and other dignitaries watch the event being broadcast live on television.

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In an interview on Wednesday with CNN's Moscow Bureau Chief Jill Dougherty, Kuchma sounded a warning about the safety of the closed plant.

"When you shut down the last block the nuclear danger doesn't go away," he said. "It is a fact that there is a huge amount of nuclear fuel still left there."

Kuchma agreed earlier this year to switch off Chernobyl in return for Western financial aid to finish building two Soviet-era reactors at Khmelnitsky and Rivne in western Ukraine, a move which environmentalists have protested against.

The European Union on Wednesday approved a $585 million loan to help build the reactors, also known as K2R4 following a $215 million commitment from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

'Purely political'

"This event will resonate not just this year, but for the whole century. It is highly symbolic that we enter the new millennium without Chernobyl," Kuchma's spokesman, Olexander Martynenko, said on Wednesday.

He said Kuchma had received letters of congratulation on the closure from U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and Pope John Paul.

He quoted the Pope, who plans to visit Ukraine next year, as saying the decision to close Chernobyl was a wise one.

This sentiment is not shared in Chernobyl itself, where the 6,000 people who work at the power station are wondering what fresh job opportunities there are for nuclear workers in a poisoned corner of Ukraine, 125 kilometres (70 miles) north of Kiev.

"The mood here is fairly miserable," said Shekstelo. "We consider our station no more dangerous -- in fact, a lot safer -- than many Russian nuclear power stations. The staff think this is being closed down for purely political reasons."

He said around 2,500 people would lose their jobs in the first two years after the closure and remaining jobs would be phased out gradually until the last fuel rods are taken out of the reactor in 2008.

"Everyone here is thinking: 'What can we do?"' he said. "There is a government social programme, but people worry about whether that provides any real financial security.

As well as the thousands of suspected deaths following the Chernobyl disaster, one in sixteen Ukrainians is suffering from cancer and other diseases caused by radiation.

Many victims of the disaster now rely on small state pensions for their livelihoods, which are often paid late or only in part.

Reuters contributed to this report.



RELATED STORIES:
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Chernobyl workers march on Kremlin
October 25, 2000
Ukraine sets Chernobyl shutdown date
September 15, 2000
Clinton, in Ukraine, applauds shutdown of Chernobyl plant
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Chernobyl: An unthinkable disaster
June 5, 2000

RELATED SITES:
Chernobyl - The Accident and Progress Since 1986
European Bank for Reconstruction and Development
European Union
Parliament of Ukraine

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