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Latvia's president marked by role at Chernobyl

by Staff Writers
Riga (AFP) April 19, 2011
Twenty-five years after he was sent to Chernobyl in the aftermath of the world's worst nuclear disaster, the experience remains etched in the memory of Latvia's President Valdis Zatlers.

But the physician-turned-politician still backs atomic energy, and is unfazed by the crisis over Japan's earthquake and tsunami-hit Fukushima nuclear power plant, saying it is crucial to distinguish the two events.

"We have to understand there's a technical failure because of technology at a nuclear plant (as at Chernobyl), or a natural disaster at Fukushima," Zatlers told AFP in an interview.

Zatlers, now 56, was one of hundreds of thousands of rescue workers sent to Chernobyl in the aftermath of the April 26, 1986 meltdown at the plant.

Like Ukraine, where Chernobyl is located, Zatlers' home republic Latvia was part of the Soviet Union at the time -- they won independence when the bloc collapsed in 1991.

As it tried to keep the disaster from the eyes of the world, Moscow mobilised resources from across its territory to try to deal with the impact.

On May 8, 1986, Zatlers, along with other doctors, was called up by the military to go to Chernobyl, where he spent 60 days.

"A 60-day university -- the most important university I've graduated from in my life," he said.

"Our task was to clean, which was not a realistic idea, in the area inside the 30-kilometre zone," he explained.

The medical workers' task was to monitor safety, with duties including removing dirt from the area and warning people not to eat contaminated local food.

While many Chernobyl rescue workers have suffered from health problems such as cancer since then, Zatlers said he has not been affected so far.

In 2008, a year after being elected president of his Baltic nation of 2.2 million, Zatlers returned to Chernobyl.

"The most impressive was my visit to that same place, 22 years later. And the surrealistic vision of the nuclear power plant. It is in the same condition as it was many decades ago. Abandoned land. No clear future for at least for the next 300 years," he said.

Despite that apocalyptic sight, and the Fukushima crisis, Zatlers said he still has faith in atomic energy's future.

"Nuclear catastrophes like Chernobyl and Fukushima, they have an impact on the societies all over the world because of the scale and the long-term damage for the environment, but the new power plants will be built when the fear is over," he said.

At least three new plants are in the pipeline in the Baltic region.

Latvia is involved in a four-nation project to build a new nuclear power station in neighbouring Lithuania to replace a 1980s, Chernobyl-style plant.

Lithuania, which like Latvia was also under Moscow's rule until 1991, closed the plant in 2009 under the terms of its 2004 European Union entry.

It aims to build a new one by 2020, with fellow ex-communist EU entrants Poland and Estonia also involved in the project, but progress has been sluggish.

Ex-Soviet neighbour Belarus, which was hard hit by Chernobyl's radiation, is planning to open its first plant between 2016 and 2020 near its borders with Latvia and Lithuania.

Russia, meanwhile, plans to construct a plant in its Baltic territory of Kaliningrad.

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