Chernobyl Warning

Widows wipe tears and hold photographs of their husbands who died during the Chernobyl disaster and its consequences during a demonstration protesting unpaid social and medical benefits for victims of the catastrophe, in Kiev, Ukraine, Saturday, April 19, 2003. Ukraine will mark 17th anniversary of Chernobyl's disaster on Monday, April 26, 2003.
The concrete-and-steel sarcophagus containing the damaged Chernobyl nuclear reactor in the Ukraine is in danger of collapsing, Russia's atomic energy minister said Tuesday.

"There may come a moment when the roof can no longer hold," Alexander Rumyantsev said in Moscow.

Chernobyl was the site of the world's worst nuclear accident when a reactor exploded April 26, 1986, spewing radiation across a vast swath of then-Soviet Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and Western Europe.

Rumyantsev said the shell over the damaged reactor was constructed hastily "under the most difficult" conditions and has gaps that threaten to leak radiation.

He also doubted that Ukrainian officials were carrying out the necessary scientific monitoring of the site.

"No one is conducting tests on the damaged walls," Rumyantsev said, adding that a stronger concrete shelter could be built over the existing sarcophagus.

International donors have pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to build a new shelter but construction is not expected to start before next year.

Rumyantsev said he is well acquainted with the deficiencies of the Chernobyl shell because he worked for years at Moscow's Kurchatov nuclear institute, which has monitored the plant since Soviet times.