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13 May, 2011  ▪  Bohdan Butkevych

The Black Hole

Chornobyl zone swallows hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ hryvnias

25 years after Chornobyl, the number of victims from the disaster keeps growing. When the USSR collapsed, 198,000 people had the status of liquidators whereas today the number has grown to 256,000. The status has become an item of unprecedented trade. At least 25% of the current liquidators have fake statuses, yet they enjoy very real pensions and privileges worth UAH 200mn annually. Officials say Chornobyl zone should become a museum but never mention the fact that very soon tourists will have nothing to see. Everything has been stolen, including radioactive vehicles and houses. Analysts estimate that the property which has been smuggled out of the zone is worth US $500mn.

RADIOACTIVE LOOTING

“The no-entry zone has been completely plundered!” claims Anatoliy Koliadin, former employee of the power station and President of Chornobyl-86, the Ukrainian Association of Disabled Liquidators. “The looting was insane. The vehicles brought in for liquidation purposes were hardly accounted; they were written off at almost zero value. They were guarded initially, but later stolen. As a rule, the administration knew what was going on. The stolen items included portable buildings and a lot of equipment, such as pumps, electric engines, water towers and so on.”

Villages and towns were robbed completely, with only foundations left. Zelenyi Mys, a village for rotational workers at the power plant, was literally dismantled down to the brick and hauled away. The same thing happened to the Kazkovy summer camp for Pioneers and Soviet school children where the staff of the power plant and contractor organizations lived in 1986. All the checkpoints surrounding the area, including Didiatky, Stari Sokoly and Dibrova, were plundered, too.

The whole world saw the photos of the notorious contaminated vehicle graveyard in Stari Sokoly full of helicopters, Armoured Personnel Carriers and trucks. Over the past five to six years, it has turned into a no-entry zone for tourists – the remnants of the looting look too embarrassing. 80% of vehicles have been stolen from this graveyard and smaller graveyards vanished entirely.

“The state-owned Agency for Information, International Cooperation and Development ‘ChornobylInterInform” founded in 1987 and controlled by the Emergency Ministry demolished two two-storey buildings in Chornobyl,” says a zone worker who asked journalists to not mention his name. “The Agency then used the remaining materials to build their office at 28 Velyka Zhytomyrska, a fancy district in the downtown Kyiv. And this is not an isolated case. Those who worked in the zone earned a pretty sum selling building materials and scrap metal.”

It was surprising how all things offered for sale passed radiation control and only a few objects which were virtually glowing with radiation qualified as dangerous.

Humanitarian aid for Chornobyl liquidators has been reaching different recipients, too. In the 1990s, NGOs and various unions of Chornobyl victims sprouted like mushrooms after a warm summer rain. Their only goal was to get and later sell foods, medicines and other products arriving from the West as humanitarian aid. Some entities are still doing fairly well today, even getting financial support from the State: for instance, last year they received UAH 2.5mn from the Ministry of Social Policy and the Ministry of Emergencies.

QUASI LIQUIDATORS

As of 1 January 2011, 2,210,605 Ukrainians had the status of Chornobyl victims. The government keeps talking about the need to decrease that number. On the whole, nearly 650,000 people from the former USSR participated in removing the consequences of Chornobyl disaster. In 1991, 198,000 people got liquidator certificates in independent Ukraine. In 2001, the number went up to 200,000. Today, one third of all real liquidators are already dead, but the number of “notarized” liquidators has hit 255,862. Why is it still growing every year?

Quasi liquidators started emerging immediately after the 4th Block exploded. Some of them spent just a few days in the no-entry zone doing something very far from liquidation, and got themselves a liquidator status right away.

“I know many former county and village council chairs got a liquidator status for themselves and all their relatives, even those who never visited them,” Anatoliy Koliadin recalls. “This was not so widespread in the Soviet era, although there have always been plenty of con artists.”

Liquidator certificates were initially issued by government agencies supervising industries whose employees were sent to Chornobyl: energy employees got their certificates from the Energy Ministry; coal miners got theirs from the Coal Ministry, while the Defense Ministry provided certificates to the military staff.  People who had access to the stamps of companies which had carried out any works in the zone, research institutes and ministries, could get counterfeit documents. The most common scam was to fake reports about assignments to the power plant post factum. After this, people did not even need to pay a bribe to get a disability certificate and the status of a Chornobyl victim. The exact number of such certificates remains unknown until today.

“You would hardly find fault with many quasi liquidators,” liquidator Serhiy Kovalskyi says. “For instance, a driver delivered cargo to Chornobyl - not the power plant, just the town -unloaded his truck, left, and ran to get the liquidator status right away. It was perfectly legitimate: he had been in the zone and there was a report to prove it. But from a moral standpoint these people were fraudsters, not liquidators.”

“It’s the real liquidators who may have troubles with the documents because they were saving people, not collecting papers,” Mr. Koliadin adds. “The administration would bring a common worker in, pay him, give him wrong documents and send him back. This practice was used by Soviet authorities – they twisted reports to downplay the exposure to radiation in 60% of cases. Nowadays these people get an average Chornobyl pension if they are lucky, even though they are eligible to benefits as much as five times higher. And they can’t prove anything.”

Liquidators are eligible for both higher pensions and privileges in business and clearance procedures, to name a few. Fake liquidators use all these benefits to the maximum extent. Their average pensions exceed UAH 1,000, but increase three- to fourfold if they are also civil servants.  Analysts estimate that nearly 90% of quasi liquidators are civil servants. For instance, Mykhailo Potebenko, the one-time General Prosecutor, and Ivan Pliushch, ex-Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada, enjoy this status. Indeed, both were involved in Chornobyl case: Potebenko, the then-Prosecutor of Kyiv Oblast, investigated the causes of explosion, while Pliushch was the First Deputy Chair of Kyiv Oblast Council Executive Committee when the tragedy happened. They did participate in any clean up at the radioactive site, but merely pushed paperwork in their comfortable Kyiv offices.

According to the most optimistic estimates, the number of quasi liquidators could be as high as 100,000, or one third of all Chornobyl liquidators.

THE TENDER SHELTER

Today, Chornobyl power plant is still being robbed, only the rules have changed to fit the new time. The Ukrainian Week sources claim that the current tender system for contracting out power plant maintenance and the New Safe Confinement construction is arranged so that only people with links to the country’s top managers can get a deal. To prove this, they cite companies founded by one individual which have been continually winning tenders to repair and conduct construction of Chornobyl facilities and food supplies since 2008.

A manager at TOV YUTEM, a long-time contractor for the maintenance of Chornobyl facility, who preferred to stay anonymous, said that many orders over the past two years have been going to subsidiaries of RosAtomStroi, the Russian monopolist in the nuclear power plant construction industry. The trend intensified in 2010 when Viktor Yanukovych came to power. According to one The Ukrainian Week source, the subsidiaries win tenders by supposedly offering the best prices. After the contract is theirs, the prices double or rise even more. The cash then goes to RosAtomStroi, while all the work at the power plant is done by Ukrainian companies including YUTEM – all they get is a small percentage of the cash paid under the contract.

Western companies are also willing to dip into the Chornobyl gravy. Rumor has it that European corporations engaged in work on Chornobyl facilities account for bribes to Ukrainian officials as a separate expense item. In 2006, a video surfaced where an employee of NUKEM, a German company which had built a management plant for Chornobyl solid radioactive waste, offered a bribe to the power plant director.  

THE PRICE TAG

The EBRD alone is planning to allocate at least EUR 125mn to build the New Safe Confinement. In 2009, the EBRD already provided EUR 135mn. At the end of 2010, Ukraine pledged to transfer US $104mn to the New Safe Confinement fund annually. On 19 April donor countries allocated nearly EUR 550mn for Chornobyl projects.

CALLOUTS:

CHORNOBYL PROPERTIES AND VEHICLES BAGGED BY MARAUDERS WERE WORTH AT LEAST US $450-500MN

Under optimistic estimates, the number of quasi liquidators can be 100,000, or one third of all liquidators


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