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Chernobyl Reactor to Keep Operating

By Mary Mycio
Special to the Los Angeles Times

KIEV, Ukraine

Ukraine's Parliament, more worried about energy shortages than environmental safety, voted Thursday to keep the infamous Chernobyl nuclear power plant working and to resume the country's stalled atomic energy program.

The Soviet-built Chernobyl plant, which spewed radiation across Europe after a 1986 explosion and fire, was to have shut down by the end of this year. That decision, made by the same Parliament two years ago after Ukraine quit the Soviet Union, was based on voluminous evidence that Chernobyl's RBMK-type graphite reactors were unsafe.

Energy Minister Vilen Semeniuk pushed for the reversal, telling lawmakers that Ukraine is crippled by fuel shortages and by the rising cost of imported oil from Russia. He said the Chernobyl station, 80 miles north of here, should keep working "because it can supply the entire Kiev region with energy for the winter."

Ecologists in Ukraine and abroad condemned the proposal, and Ukraine's government was divided on the issue. Environmental Minister Yuri Kostenko argued that Chernobyl's shutdown should be not be delayed beyond next spring.

But Parliament voted 221-38 to keep the station working "so long as technically feasible," a mandate that could give it an additional lifetime of at least 14 years.

The Chernobyl accident on April 26, 1986, the worst in the history of nuclear energy, forced the evacuation of 180,000 people from surrounding cities and villages. The official death toll was 32, but medical experts say hundreds, perhaps thousands, may have died later from exposure to radiation.

Reactor No. 4, which exploded in 1986, has been encased in steel and concrete ever since. Two of the other three reactors are working. The other one, Reactor No. 2, has been off since a fire in 1991, but Thursday's resolution, adopted after a short debate, will bring it back on line.

Officials at Chernobyl said shutting the plant would have been costly, not only for the lost output but also for the need for electricity from other sources just to maintain the idle reactors.

But Hanna Tsvitkova, a spokeswoman for the environmental group Greenpeace said that continuing to operate the reactors was dangerous and could prove far more costly.

"Chernobyl is Ukraine's ecological tragedy," she said. "The 2 percent of nuclear energy that Chernobyl supplies to Ukraine's citizens will never justify Chernobyl's victims of the past, present and future."