- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 6, 2000

KIEV President Clinton and Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma announced yesterday that the last nuclear reactor operating at Chernobyl, site of the world's worst radiation disaster, will close forever on Dec. 15.

The United States will contribute $78 million to reconstruct and stabilize the structure that covers unit four the reactor that caught fire and exploded in 1986. Two other reactors have been idled.

The United States will contribute another $2 million to improve safety at Ukraine's other nuclear power plants.

"This is a hopeful moment. It is also a moment when we remember those who suffered as a result of the accident there," Mr. Clinton said during a signing ceremony with Mr. Kuchma at Mariinskiy Palace, a former royal residence completed in 1755.

As many as 55,000 people have died as a result of the April 24, 1986, disaster, which exposed thousands of villagers to fatal doses of radiation, according to Sergei Shoigu, the Russian emergency situations minister.

Some think the toll is much higher because thyroid cancer is sweeping through populations that lived near the meltdown site. Leukemia also is far more widespread than in otherwise comparative settings, according to Greenpeace.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported in April that the Chernobyl accident released "at least 100 times as much radiation" as the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

The United States will fund a "business incubator" for the neighboring town of Slavutch to help make up for the economic loss from the Chernobyl plant. Mr. Clinton announced another $25 million program to develop small-and medium-size businesses in Ukraine.

The closing of Chernobyl is "a very sensitive issue" in Ukraine, a senior administration official said. The closing eliminates lucrative jobs for a class of scientists and engineers affiliated with the plant.

Those economic losses could prove substantial in a country where nine years after independence foreign investment lags at $55 per capita, the official said. For comparison, per-capita investment in Poland is nearly $1,000, the official said.

Kiev marked the last stop on Mr. Clinton's eight-day diplomatic tour of Europe and Russia.

Mr. Clinton saluted Ukraine for continuing a difficult transformation to independence and democracy. Last December, Mr. Kuchma won a second five-year term as Ukraine's president, defeating a Communist rival.

In Kiev, Mr. Clinton presented a wreath at a memorial to Ukrainians killed in Josef Stalin's forced famine of 1932 and 1933. Anywhere from 3 million to 7 million Ukrainians are believed to have died in the famine attributed to the Soviet ruler's forced collectivization policy.

Mr. Clinton addressed a throng at an outdoor rally, urging Ukrainians to continue building the nation's democratic institutions by cracking down on corruption, building the nation's economy, and upholding the rule of law.

Mr. Clinton, looking out over St. Michael's Square, said he had come to "the cradle of Ukrainian culture" to pay respects to "Ukraine's ancient and glorious past" and to tell Ukrainians "America will stand by you as you fight for a free and prosperous future."

Mr. Clinton, gazing at St. Sophia's Cathedral, built in the 11th century, noted Ukraine's suffering under Stalin, the Nazis and the Soviet Union.

"Today, the oppressors are gone," Mr. Clinton said. "But you, the people of Ukraine, you are still here, stronger than ever."

"Ukraine has the best chance in a thousand years" to achieve freedom and prosperity, Mr. Clinton said. "Do not give up. Keep on fighting," he said.

The Clinton administration has been a major financial supporter of the government of Mr. Kuchma, despite a series of scandals and financial irregularities.

Ukraine now ranks third in the world in U.S. foreign aid, and has been listed by Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright as one of four emerging democracies considered key to U.S. interests abroad.

But the Kiev government has been embarrassed by charges that it overstated its foreign currency reserves in 1997 by more than $700 million, in order to qualify for International Monetary Fund loans. The giant accounting firm of PriceWaterhouseCoopers is conducting an audit of Ukraine's central bank.

Mr. Clinton made a point yesterday of saying he supported new IMF loans to Ukraine. The U.S. administration has sent a strong signal of support for the reform program being pushed by new Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko.

Although on a smaller scale than in Russia, Ukraine has had to deal with official corruption and the rise of a class of powerful business "oligarchs" as it tries to liberalize its economy.

Federal prosecutors last week revealed that a grand jury in San Francisco has indicted former Ukrainian Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko on money laundering charges.

The indictment charges that Mr. Lazarenko between 1994 and 1999 transferred to bank accounts and U.S. brokerage firms some $114 million in funds obtained illegally by exploiting his position.

• David R. Sands contributed to this report in Washington.

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