After Chernobyl

KIEV: Chernobyl, the world’s most notorious nuclear power plant, will be shut down today, fourteen years after it spewed clouds of radioactive dust into the atmosphere. Back then, Ukraine became the focus of global attention, but Ukrainians learned of the disaster much later than the rest of the world. I recall that fateful Saturday afternoon with utter clarity, strolling through Kiev with my six-year-old daughter, oblivious to the danger.

Chernobyl changed Ukraine forever, and was a catalyst for the downfall of the Soviet Union. Ultimately, Chernobyl changed the world. Now that Chernobyl will be permanently shut down, world attention again turns to Ukraine, this time in hope, not fear.

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Shutting down a vital source of electrical energy, which Chernobyl remains, is no an easy task, particularly with winter upon us. Ukraine’s energy infrastructure is weak; losing 8-10% of our electricity production and $100 million in revenues will strain the system even more.

We also bear the responsibilities involved in laying off Chernobyl’s workers and depriving the adjacent city of Slavutych (population 28,000), of its main source of income. Moreover, we must continue dealing with the technical and ecological issues surrounding the Chernobyl sarcophagus, as well as maintain nuclear safety in the remaining nuclear plants in operation in Ukraine, including what is left of Chernobyl.

In recent years, Ukraine alone financed all the costs of dealing with the Chernobyl disaster, consistently spending 5-10% of our state budget revenues to this end. Dealing with the aftermath of the disaster will remain a financial burden even with the plant closed.

Yet closing the plant proves that we keep our promises. We committed to shut down Chernobyl this year in an agreement with the G-7 countries and the European Commission. Closure of the last remaining reactor at Chernobyl, I believe, must mark the beginning of a new phase of cooperation with the European Union and G-7 countries.

Closing Chernobyl may be the most dramatic, but it is only a single episode in our reform efforts. When we gained independence, the world expected great things from Ukraine. Over the course of a decade, the world appeared to forget about us. Now we finally have a chance to break out of the downward spiral of economic decline. At long last, our society and economy are set on the path to growth and development.

After pro-reform forces secured victory in last year’s presidential elections, all of the branches of government began cooperating to entrench democracy and the market economy in Ukraine. For the first time since independence, Ukraine recorded growth in industrial output of 12.5% in the first 11 months of 2000, and GDP has grown by 5.4% this year.

Tough decisions were made, not least involving the energy sector. Barter payments, -- which stifled the energy market -- were eliminated. So too tax breaks and other privileges that skewed the playing field in favor of a select few.

We are also doing everything possible to make Ukraine attractive to foreign investors. In the energy sector, we are privatizing state-owned energy distributors. To ensure complete transparency in the tender process, and eliminate problems experienced in the past, Western advisors are assisting us. For our intention is to attract large Western energy companies with experience in this field as strategic investors. Ten leading international energy companies, indeed, will participate in the privatization of the first group of companies.

By the end of next year, we will privatize 12 additional energy companies. In its sheer scale, this may be the largest single energy privatization ever attempted in Europe. Our energy companies service a territory the size of France; they will all be privatized.

Of course, these reforms are resisted, primarily by the oligarchs who thrive on a lack of transparency and use privileged access to state resources to enhance their business interests. By eliminating barter and requiring monetary payment, we curtailed their opportunities to profit at the state’s expense.

Although we can and will continue the fight against corruption, we cannot do everything alone. International support for our efforts is crucial. A positive sign here is the recent decision by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) to provide $215 million to complete the nuclear power stations at Rivne and Khmelnytsky, which will compensate for the loss of Chernobyl’s generating capacity. Euroatom is also helping with a loan of $585 million to finance repairs at Ukraine’s functioning nuclear power plants.

In return, Ukraine will uphold its end of the deal: in addition to closing Chernobyl, we will introduce Western nuclear safety standards and renew cooperation with the IMF via the Extended Fund Facility program. We still need other potential creditors to confirm their involvement.

Closing Chernobyl will not eliminate the Chernobyl threat. Our people will be unable to live on thousands of acres of contaminated earth for hundreds of years. The concrete sarcophagus built over the destroyed reactor must be renovated. We are grateful to all the donor countries who, with contributions from our own state budget, helped raise the $760 million needed to make the sarcophagus safer.

In the end, Chernobyl’s legacy does not belong solely to Ukraine, for ours is a country located in the heart of Europe. We are a European nation. We realize that no one will implement reforms for us. The West can, however, help speed up and facilitate our efforts, as it did with the closure of Chernobyl. Cooperation between Ukraine and the West, without a disaster to concentrate everyone’s minds, will benefit all concerned.