Chernobyl Plant Faces Potentially Dangerous Power Cut Due to Debt

CHERNOBYL, Ukraine -- The Chernobyl nuclear power plant, site of the world's worst nuclear accident, is facing a potentially dangerous power cut due to a huge debt, an official said April 22.

The state-run company responsible for decommissioning the plant where a reactor exploded in 1986 in the world's worst commercial nuclear accident, owes more than $6 million (4.6 million euros) in overdue wages and unpaid bills for electricity, gas, fuel and transport, said company spokesman Semyon Shtein.

Shtein warned that the cutoff of electricity and gas supplies could be "rather dangerous and it can result in breaches of nuclear safety." He did not elaborate.

Shtein said his company had warned Ukraine's government of the potential danger.

He said the plant will be forced to use its own scarce fuel reserves to power generators and provide transport for workers if the plant is cut off from the power grid and gas supply.

The Soviet-era accident on April 26, 1986, at the plant about 100 kilometers (some 60 miles) north of the Ukrainian capital sent radioactive fallout over then-Soviet Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and much of northern Europe.

Some 7 million people are estimated to suffer from radiation-related effects, and Ukraine has registered some 4,400 deaths blamed on the accident. Chernobyl's last working reactor was shut down in December 2000, but decommissioning works have continued.

Chernobyl's managers have repeatedly warned that the decommissioning might be delayed due to lack of funds for the storage of nuclear fuel from the undamaged reactors and the highly radioactive debris that is still scattered inside the destroyed reactor No. 4, which was hastily entombed in a concrete-and-steel shelter after the accident.

The shelter is crumbling and Ukrainian and Western experts say it needs urgent repairs.

Shtein said that the money for Chernobyl's expenses was expected to be allocated earlier this year from a special state fund. He said the money has never reached it because of the government's failure to finalize details for their transfer.

Earlier this month, Ukraine's Energy and Fuel Minister Ivan Plachkov said that it would cost over $1 billion (770 million euros) to build a new, safer structure to confine the destroyed reactor, and that foreign donors including the United States had promised to contribute.

Work on the new confinement structure is scheduled to begin next year and end within three years, Plachkov said. Separately, a Ukrainian-Russian consortium began a three-year operation aimed at reinforcing the existing structure over the reactor.