Dáil Éireann - Volume 486 - 03 February, 1998
Adjournment Debate. - Chernobyl Shelter Project.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle Rory O'Hanlon
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Deputy Lawlor's matter was called at 8.40 p.m. and the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Deputy O'Donnell, kindly remained in the House to reply.
Mr. Lawlor Mr. Lawlor
Mr. Lawlor: I apologise, I thought my matter was due to be called later. I wish to place on record my concern about the developing situation at the Chernobyl reactor site.
It appears that, in the aftermath of what was probably the world's greatest environmental disaster, given the tragic effect on the lives of those living in the catchment area of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, the international community came to the rescue to the best of its ability. Excellent work is being undertaken at international level to assist those who were affected or are likely to suffer in the future. However, concerns  have emerged from the region in light of the international community's and the local authorities' recognition of what needs to be done to make the nuclear station safe. A substantial outlay has been projected as being necessary to carry out construction safety work on the site. Unfortunately, with the exception of Ireland and a number of other countries, the financial commitment to meet this responsibility has been less than forthcoming, particularly from some of the larger nations.
I ask the Minister of State to use her offices, particularly during the British Presidency of the European Union, to ensure that the necessary resources and technical construction support are forthcoming from the EU. This will ensure that there will be no risk of a major disaster at this nuclear power plant in the future. Those attempting to provide assistance to people living near Chernobyl have reported that the progress of the construction safety work is less than productive and is falling behind schedule. As a result, greater risks have arisen in respect of the contents of this deteriorating nuclear power station. There is a need for a concerted effort by the international community to provide the resources which were projected as being necessary to make the station safe and avoid what could be another major international environmental disaster.
Everyone is aware that, in light of prevailing winds, etc., radioactive materials which escape into the atmosphere do not recognise national or international boundaries. Repeated problems have occurred at Sellafield, which is considered one of the best managed nuclear sites. That was not the case in the former Soviet Union. Taking account of the engineering standards, the level of investment, the controls systems, the lack of sophistication and safety procedures and the technical aspects involved, the Chernobyl project never reached a standard which justified the type of risk that can arise from a nuclear power station of this kind.
This matter is of major international concern. Commitments were given by the international community which do not appear to have been honoured in certain cases. I ask that this House and the Minister for Foreign Affairs endeavour to reinvigorate the efforts of the international community and ensure that the necessary resources are made available to ensure that another environmental disaster does not occur at Chernobyl.
Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs (Ms O'Donnell) Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs (Ms O'Donnell)
Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs (Ms O'Donnell): I am grateful to Deputy Lawlor for raising this important matter with which I was directly involved in December last when I approved funding for the project from my international co-operation budget.
As is well known, on 26 April 1986 an explosion ripped apart the fourth reactor unit at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine, giving rise to human tragedy, economic hardship and environmental challenges on an  unprecedented scale. The disaster had consequences far beyond the immediate contamination of the surrounding region and it provided graphic and alarming evidence, if such were needed, that harmful radiological exposure respects no regional or national boundaries. The consequences of the explosion for the health of the people of Chernobyl, those further afield and the environment in the immediate area, in neighbouring countries and in many parts of Western Europe, have been extremely serious. The suffering of the people of Chernobyl — adults and children — has touched everyone, including Irish people whose response has been very generous.
Within a year of the explosion in 1986, a speedily designed shelter, or sarcophagus, was constructed over the ruined reactor site. This shelter, which has stood for over a decade, was never intended to be permanent and is now in urgent need of repair and partial reconstruction. The Ukraine has since become an independent state and has assumed the burden of dealing with this tragedy, which it inherited from the former Soviet Union.
In 1995, the Government of the Ukraine, the European Commission and the G-7 — the group of seven leading industrialised countries — signed a memorandum of understanding to support the decision of the Government of the Ukraine to close the Chernobyl nuclear plant by the year 2000. Under the terms of this memorandum, an international project to repair the sarcophagus — the Chernobyl shelter implementation plan — was initiated. The aim is to stabilise the present structure and develop a strategy for dealing with the radioactive waste it contains. The estimated cost of this undertaking — more than $750 million — far exceeds the resources of the Ukraine and considerable external help is needed to pursue it.
The efforts proposed in the plan will stabilise the existing shelter over the ruined unit 4 reactor, build a new protective structure and remove portions of the existing shelter to ensure its long-term stability. The project will also investigate the need for removal of the fuel containing masses, the residual melted fuel and concrete, inside the shelter. Transforming the remains of the Chernobyl disaster into a stable structure will be one of the largest and most important engineering challenges ever undertaken. I agree with Deputy Lawlor that it needs and deserves the support of the international community. It is not expected to be completed until 2005, five years after the planned shutdown of unit 3, the remaining operating reactor at Chernobyl.
The G-7 and the European Commission together pledged $300 million to repair the sarcophagus at the Denver Summit in June of last year. They called on the international community for additional help to meet the cost of the project, more than $750 million. A special Chernobyl  shelter fund was proposed which has since been formally established and is being administered by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.
Under the joint chairmanship of Vice-President Gore of the United States and President Kuchma of the Ukraine, a pledging conference to seek commitments of support from the international community was held in New York on 20 November 1997. Both Vice-President Gore and President Kuchma wrote to the Taoiseach and myself asking Ireland to participate in the pledging conference and to contribute to the fund.
Ireland was represented at the pledging conference by its Ambassador in Washington. Donors were invited to contribute a minimum of at least 2.5 million ecu, approximately £1.97 million. This was the minimum pledge required to sit in the assembly of contributors which will supervise the administration of the fund by the EBRD.
Ireland's nuclear policy objectives place a heavy emphasis on safety, radiological protection and recognition of the concerns of third countries which are exposed to safety risks. We have consistently expressed concern about the risks inherent in the use of nuclear power. Against that background, Ireland was particularly pleased that the EU had been to the forefront of the international effort to address the consequences of the Chernobyl tragedy. It supported the EU's position in favour of a substantial financial contribution to the shelter implementation plan. The Union's contribution will be 100 million European units of account, 100 million ecu, and of this 70 million ecu will be paid this year, and the balance of 30 million ecu next year — 1999.
In addition, over and above our share of the 100 million ecus pledged by the European Community to the Chernobyl shelter fund — in the region of £800,000 — the Government was able to pledge an additional sum equivalent to 1.5 million European units of account, 1.5 million ecu, to the fund at the pledging conference in New York. This amount — equivalent to £1.037 million — was paid last December to the special Chernobyl shelter account at the EBRD. Other contributors, in addition to the EU and members of the G-7, included Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Austria, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Spain, Greece and Switzerland.
It was possible to respond quickly to the appeal for funds from savings which arose in 1997 in the Vote for International Co-operation. The circumstances were exceptional, but the Government was pleased to be able to respond quickly. Budgetary resources permitting, the Government hopes to be in a position to make further a contribution of 1 million European units of account over the next few years, but in any case by the year 2001.
The Dáil adjourned at 9.15 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 4 February 1998.
Dáil Éireann 486 Adjournment Debate. Chernobyl Shelter Project.