Just before touring the concrete hulk that entombs the ruined Chernobyl reactor, Vice President Al Gore and Ukraine President Leonid Kuchma last week unveiled plans for an International Radioecology Laboratory at the site. The lab, funded jointly by the U.S. and Ukrainian governments, should begin studying everything from genetic mutations in local wildlife to radionuclide movement and cleanup technologies by next summer.
When the Chernobyl power plant's reactor number 4 exploded on 26 April 1986, it released into the air as much as 150 million curies of radiation, much of which settled onto nearby land. Authorities created a 30-kilometer "exclusion zone" around the nuclear plant, evicting more than 135,000 people and limiting access mostly to plant workers, cleanup crews, and scientists. As a result, the exclusion zone has become a unique ecological laboratory in the shadows of the still-operating power plant.
The radioecology lab will be able to tackle many problems, including contaminated groundwater and wind-borne radioactive dust. "We place great hopes in this new facility," says Anatoly Nosovsky, director of the Slavutych Laboratory of International Research and Technology, a nearby research center devoted to nuclear safety and cleanup technologies.
The $1.3 million agreement, signed in Kiev, calls for the United States to furnish the lab with top-of-the-line instruments for separating radionuclides and carrying out other analyses. In turn, Ukraine will find a building for the lab, staffed initially with several scientists, and pay its utility bills. Visiting U.S. scientists hope that the lab will help cut through red tape that stymies work in the most dangerous areas in the exclusion zone. "The greatest contribution of the new lab," says Robert Baker of Texas Tech University in Lubbock, is that "we'll be more likely to get permission to work in areas most in need of research."