KIEV (AFP) — French consortium Novarka signed a contract Monday with Ukraine to shut away the radioactive heart of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster with a multi-million-euro protective cover designed to last a hundred years.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and the French trade minister, Herve Novelli, oversaw the signing by the consortium, which includes French builders Bouygues and Vinci.
Yushchenko, who faces difficult parliamentary elections at the end of this month, said the 432-million-euro (600-million-dollar) deal for the new shield was "a great historic event," his press service said.
Before the signing, Novelli visited the site of the world's worst nuclear accident, about 100 kilometres (62 miles) north of Kiev, to send what he called "a message of remembrance, solidarity and compassion."
"By shutting in the power station we are closing a page so as to open another, one of secure nuclear energy," Novelli said.
Novarka will build a steel shield 190 metres (623 feet) wide and 200 metres (656 feet) long to cover the existing containment structure, or sarcophagus, which stands over the reactor and radioactive fuel that caused the accident in the dying years of the Soviet Union.
Work on the sarcophagus, which is designed to last a century, should start in October with the target of completion in 2012.
By the end of the sarcophagus' lifespan, "Chernobyl will not exist anymore," Vinci chairman Yves-Thibault de Silguy said. "The end goal of the shield is to allow (Chernobyl's) total dismantling."
However, Frederic Marillier of the environmental activists group Greenpeace-France said "the West and France in particular should not rest on their laurels."
"The sarcophagus is not a definitive solution because it does not eliminate the risk of a nuclear chain reaction setting off in the remaining radioactive material."
On April 26, 1986, reactor number four at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded, contaminating the then-Soviet republics of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, as well as large parts of Europe.
The new sarcophagus will weigh about 18,000 tons -- more than twice the weight of the Eiffel tower.
Most of Ukraine's costs are being met by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in Europe.
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