The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) has pledged $507 million to Ukraine to help it build a new protective shell over the nuclear reactor that exploded in 1986. The cover currently in place, erected shortly after the world's worst nuclear accident, is now crumbling.
The money will go toward the construction of a more secure and permanent shelter to encompass the existing "sarcophagus," a massive concrete and steel structure which was hastily erected to contain the radiation. Over the years, it has begun to deteriorate and is now in poor condition, creating a potentially hazardous situation. If it collapses, another cloud of radioactive dust could be released.
The project to build the new shell, the Chernobyl Shelter Fund, is still in the development phase and the structure is estimated to cost some $1.2 billion (€875 million). That is beyond Ukraine's financial means and the eastern European country has repeatedly asked the West for financial assistance.
The $507 million (€369 million) pledged will go toward the new shelter as well as toward freezing the reactor permanently to prevent further damage to the environment, according to Lyudmila Shcherban, a spokesperson for Ukraine's Emergency Situations Ministry.
More than €600 million has already been pledged by 28 donor governments.
The No. 4 reactor at the Chernobyl plant went out of control during a test at low power on April 26, 1986, leading to an explosion and fire. The reactor building was demolished and large amounts of radiation were released into the atmosphere, contaminating an area roughly the size of Italy. The principal nations affected were Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, although increased levels of radiation were detected in other European countries for some time.
Two workers were killed in the reactor's initial explosion, while in the first three months after the accident 28 died of radiation sickness and another from cardiac arrest. Some 200,000 people were forcibly evacuated because of the accident and some of Europe's most fertile farmland was ruined.
It is hotly debated how many people in total died from the radioactivity. The UN's health agency said in a report last year that an estimated 9,300 people will die from cancers caused by Chernobyl's radiation. Other groups, such as Greenpeace, say the number is much higher. Besides the physical ailments, the negative psychological effects of the accident have been profound for people in the region.
The EBRD is the largest financial investor in Ukraine. It has poured money into projects ranging from banking to infrastructure to small and medium-sized businesses. The bank's remit is to use investment tools to build market economies and democracies from central Europe to central Asia.