- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 30, 2000

KIEV, Ukraine The government decided yesterday to close the Chernobyl nuclear power plant by the end of this year, as Western countries long have demanded.

The decision follows earlier pledges by President Leonid Kuchma to shut the plant, site of the world's worst nuclear accident.

The Cabinet ordered the Fuel and Energy Ministry to work out a general plan for closing Chernobyl within three months. After that, a more detailed program taking into account social protection for Chernobyl's workers has to be devised within six months.

Necessary spending has to be included in the 2001 budget, the government decision said.

Mr. Kuchma promised the Clinton administration last month that the plant would be shut this year.

But Mr. Kuchma did not give a definite closing date and reiterated that Chernobyl would close only when American, Ukrainian and other international experts work out an aid deal to help compensate Ukraine for the energy it provides.

The government's decision did not make such a requirement. But it did recommend that a Cabinet delegation hold negotiations with the Group of Seven, the world's most industrialized nations, and the European Union to ensure "full and proper implementation" of a 1995 aid memorandum.

Under the 1995 deal with the G-7, Ukraine promised to close Chernobyl in exchange for aid. But the former Soviet republic repeatedly delayed the closure, saying it never received the money.

Cash-poor Ukraine, which gets about 40 percent of its electricity from Chernobyl and four other nuclear plants, has been seeking funds to help it complete two new nuclear reactors as compensation for Chernobyl's closure.

Environmental groups have urged Ukraine to find alternative sources of energy, and critics have long accused it of using Chernobyl as leverage to get money from the West.

Chernobyl's reactor No. 4 exploded and caught fire during a poorly conceived test in 1986, covering much of Europe with a radioactive cloud.

The Ukrainian government has blamed at least 8,000 deaths on the disaster, including those killed immediately, workers who died in the massive cleanup operation, and people who subsequently died of cancer and other radiation-related illnesses.

Three of Chernobyl's four reactors are now permanently closed, leaving only one reactor, No. 3, in operation. It underwent extensive repairs last year but since has experienced several malfunctions.

The government decision was announced as representatives of donor nations were meeting in Ukraine to discuss the future of Chernobyl and making safer the cement-and-steel covering of the ruined No. 4 reactor.

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