Roof fire at Chernobyl intensifies Ukrainian calls to close nuclear plant

MOSCOW — MOSCOW (AP) -- The fire that destroyed part of the roof of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant did not cause injuries or a radiation leak, the government said yesterday, but it was certain to intensify calls to shut down the plant.

The blaze Friday night, which also forced the shutdown of a nuclear reactor, was the worst accident at the Ukrainian plant since the 1986 disaster that spewed radiation throughout Europe.


"We cannot sit on this powder keg any longer," Vladimir Yavorivsky, head of a Ukrainian parliamentary commission on Chernobyl, told reporters in Kiev, 80 miles south of Chernobyl.

Whether to close the plant quickly or wait for a replacement to be built already is a major issue in the campaign leading up to the Ukraine's first popular presidential election Dec. 1.


The fire in a turbine room at the Ukrainian plant is likely to renew debate over the safety of Soviet reactors nationwide.

Public sentiment against nuclear energy is strong -- a legacy of the April 26, 1986, explosion and fire at Chernobyl that spewed radiation around the world and caused at least 32 deaths in the worst disaster in the history of nuclear power.

Three of the power plant's four reactors have continued operating since then.

Yevgeny Ignatenko, a spokesman for the Ministry of the Atomic Power Industry in Moscow, said Friday's fire broke out as a turbine driven by the plant's No. 2 reactor was being idled for repairs. The 1986 disaster involved the No. 4 reactor, now permanently out of commission.

Mr. Ignatenko said that in the midst of the planned shutdown, "an automatic switch turned the reactor on again," producing a surge of current that ignited the insulating material on some electric cables.

His statement, carried by the Soviet news agency Tass, said the initial fire was extinguished within a minute. But some hydrogen leaked into the turbine room and burst into flames, setting the roof ablaze and destroying a truss, the statement said. About 390 square feet of roof collapsed.

The fire was put out within 3 1/2 hours late Friday, before it could spread into the reactor room, Tass said. The reactor was shut down as a precaution.

"No injuries or radiation release were reported. The reactor is now being cooled," Mr. Ignatenko said yesterday morning.


Both the Ukrainian government and the atomic power ministry quickly sent investigators. Prosecutors also opened a criminal investigation, Tass reported.