| Work is
expected to start this year at Chernobyl on a new structure to entomb its
shattered reactor and stop radiation leaks at the site of the world's largest
nuclear disaster, according to Reuters.
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) pledged 135 million € (108 million pounds) to make safe the nuclear power plant more than two decades after the explosion and fire that dumped radiation over much of Europe. But it will be 100 years before people can resettle the area.
The cash, about 10% of the bank's net profit in 2007, will go into a fund to build a new containment vessel at the plant, in thick woodland near Ukraine's border with Belarus.
Reactor four, which blew up on April 26, 1986, is to be crowned by a steel arch which will measure 257 metres across and 105 metres high and will lock in radioactive dust. A separate facility will house spent nuclear fuel now under grassy mounds.
Radiation levels near the plant still hit 300 microroentgens -- 30 times levels acceptable for humans.
The existing "sarcophagus" covering the reactor was hastily built in the weeks after the blast. Helicopters dumped sand and chemicals on the blaze and workers built a rail line to bring in concrete and steel for the construction.
EBRD governors, Ukrainian officials and journalists were kept several hundred metres from the reactor during a visit -- any closer is considered too dangerous without protection -- and later subjected to radiation checks.
But Chernobyl general director Nikolai Dmitruk plays down any suggestion of harmful radiation levels.
"It's not dangerous," he told visiting reporters. "Spending a day at the plant gives you the same amount of radiation as taking a transatlantic flight."
Around 1,500 workers, most Ukrainian, will be brought in to work on the projects and will be bussed in to the plant from outside a 30-km (19 mile) exclusion zone.
Around 300 people have illegally settled in the zone in defiance of a government ban.
Laundry hanging to dry and the occasional slow-moving Soviet-era car are stark reminders of the towns that once bustled while providing the plant with workers.
The main town of Pripyat, whose population of 49.000 was evacuated one day after the explosion, stands deserted. A looted hotel, restaurants and apartment buildings with trees poking out of their windows frame the main square, overgrown with shrubs.
Funding for the arch was a long time in coming.
Ukraine first asked the West to help make Chernobyl safe in 1992 after Soviet rule collapsed.
Debate proceeded through the 1990s, with Ukraine accusing the West periodically of indifference and some Western countries balking at Kiev's repeated calls for more money.
The arch, to be built by the French-led Novarka consortium, should be complete in 2012. The work will cost around 1.05 billion € in total, the EBRD says, and 975 million € have been raised including this week's donation.
While the shortfall is easily achievable through donations from EBRD members, the bank still has worries.
"The main contributor to complications is currency exchange fluctuation," said Balthasar Lindauer, Deputy Director of Nuclear Safety at the bank. Ukrainian labour, he said, was becoming much more expensive.
The last working reactor at Chernobyl, which is 160 km north of the capital Kiev, was closed in 2000 under pressure from the international community, which helped complete two reactors elsewhere to make up for lost generating capacity.
The blast spilled radiation over most of Europe, with Belarus, downwind from the plant, affected most acutely.
Estimates of the number of deaths directly related to the accident vary. The World Health Organisation estimates the figure at 9.000 while the environmental group Greenpeace predicts an eventual death toll of 93.000.
Though highly radioactive, the lush surroundings around the plant are teeming with wildlife, which thrive after being unmolested by human encroachment for more than two decades.
Birch trees and bright meadows in the exclusion zone around the plant are home to boars, wolves and deer. Ecologists wonder at their ability to survive on a spot hit by several times more radiation than the bombed Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.
"After the accident the zone became a huge zoo. Without humans, they have multiplied," said Alexander Novikov, deputy director for technical safety at the plant.
The long-term health impact on people and animals is unknown.