The recent political crisis in the Ukraine overshadows a past meltdown in the troubled state. The recent attention paid to the Ukraine has focused on the political instability, culminating with President Viktor Yanukovych fleeing the capital of Kiev and the parliament naming an interim president. New elections have been called for and several other members of Yanukovych’s government have been removed from their posts by opposition leaders in the parliament. Troubles in the Ukraine predate this current crisis, however. The country is also home to the most significant nuclear accident in history, the meltdown at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.
The accident occurred on April 26th, 1986. Reactor operators were conducting a test designed to evaluate some of the reactor’s safety systems. Due to a combination of operator errors and flaws in the reactor design, the reactor eventually became unstable. This led to a massive steam explosion within the reactor, breaching the containment vessel and leading to a huge release of radiation into the environment. The Ukraine itself was heavily contaminated, but so too were surrounding countries such as Belarus and Russia. Soviet authorities initially attempted to conceal the accident from the world, but the release of radiation was too significant to conceal for long, and soon they were forced to confront the accident.
Chernobyl represented a catastrophe that was beyond the ability of a state like the Ukraine to confront on its own. Some economic and international relations scholars have even speculated that the economic costs associated with dealing with Chernobyl were a contributing factor to the instability that would bring about the end of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s. The accident represented not only a loss of material and the expense of cleaning up its after effects. It also contaminated significant areas of very productive farmland, reducing the production capacity of the Ukraine and surrounding states. The current political crisis in the Ukraine may overshadow this past meltdown, but the two may also share a connection.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Ukraine has been dependent on aid from the international community to continue to deal with the Chernobyl plant. Faced with an energy crisis, the Ukraine was forced to keep the other reactors at the Chernobyl plant operating for many years after the accident, despite warnings and pressure from the international community. The final reactor at the plant was not shut down until the year 2000. Furthermore, the containment structure surrounding the exploded reactor is in dire need of repair and a plan to replace it is underway.
The new plan calls for what is being referred to as the “New Safe Confinement.” It is designed to fit over the current structure and allow for the safe removal and dismantling of some of the wrecked reactor components. The entire project is funded by firms outside the Ukraine, however. The plan itself is mostly the work of a French consortium of construction companies.
The dependence of the Ukraine on outside aid has been a contributing factor to its current political crisis. It was President Yanukovych’s decision to seek economic aid from Russia that precipitated the crisis last year. Chernobyl is a significant factor in the economic burdens that the Ukraine faces. It may not be the name that is heard in the headlines surrounding the Ukraine’s current political crisis, but it should not be overshadowed as a contributing factor.
By Christopher V. Spencer