Russia will provide $17 million to help improve safety at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the site of the world`s worst civilian nuclear disaster, and fully decommission it, a top Russian nuclear official said on Monday, according to RIA Novosti.

Three reactors of the Chernobyl plant continued to operate for several years after reactor number four exploded in 1986, the last reactor shutting down in 2000. The reactors still contain nuclear fuel rods, and require constant monitoring. The fourth reactor is housed in a Soviet-era sarcophagus set to be replaced by a $1.4 bln metal structure.

Speaking at an IAEA conference, Sergei Kiriyenko, head of the state-run corporation Rosatom, said: "The Russian Federation intends to help Ukraine improve security at the site of the Chernobyl power plant, and speed up the start of work to decommission it. For these purposes we will contribute $17 million to the Nuclear Safety Account and the Chernobyl Shelter Fund."

The Nuclear Safety Account was set up in 1993 to finance nuclear safety projects in central and eastern Europe. It is run by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development as is the Chernobyl Shelter Fund, a project aimed at building the new sarcophagus over reactor number four.

The protective shell currently in place was built shortly after the disaster, and continues to leak radiation. The hurriedly built structure has been repaired on numerous occasions.

A nuclear waste storage facility is also to be built at the site, as well as a processing plant to manage nuclear fuel assemblies.

The Chernobyl Shelter Fund, which involves 28 countries, is aimed at protecting the personnel, population and environment from radioactive threat and preparing a stable and environmentally safe system to last 100 years.

The Chernobyl disaster of April 26, 1986 was caused by overheating following a disastrous experiment involving fuel rods, which was ironically aimed at improving safety.

While the initial Soviet cover-up was condemned by the West, it is almost certain that the authoritarian regime in place at the time, which sent hundreds of workers to their certain death in the operation to seal the damaged reactor, averted much greater loss of life using means that would have been inaccessible to an open, democratic society.

Estimates by international bodies as to the number of deaths caused by the Chernobyl accident vary dramatically. Fifty-six people were reported to have been killed in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, and another 4,000 died of thyroid cancer shortly afterwards.

The disaster is thought to have released at least 100 times more radiation than the atomic bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in WWII.

Vast areas, mainly in the three then-Soviet republics of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, were contaminated by the fallout of the Chernobyl explosion. More than 300,000 people were relocated. Around five million people still live in areas of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine classified as "contaminated" by radioactive elements.

Findings issued in 2005 by the UN Chernobyl Forum - a consortium of UN agencies led by the World Health Organization, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and UNDP - and subsequent studies confirmed that the majority of people in the affected regions have little to fear from radiation, but need better social and economic opportunities.


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