Bolting the 100-year lid on Chernobyl

Bolting the 100-year lid on Chernobyl
The New Safe Confinement will soon swallow Chernobyl's shattered fourth reactor.
By Nick Allen in Chernobyl April 7, 2016

In contrast to previous anniversaries of the explosion at the Chernobyl power station, the 30th-year event on April 26 should radiate unabashed optimism. Because in November hydraulic pistons will finally push a 36,000-tonne hangar-shaped construction along rails into place over the towering carcass of the plant’s ill-fated fourth reactor block.

This steel shroud called the New Safe Confinement (NSC) will then be sealed for a century, allowing the block to be safely dismantled from within using giant cranes.

“When I saw the reality on the ground it looked like mission impossible,” says Vince Novak, the veteran director of nuclear safety for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), which has managed the financing of the NSC project since the construction contract was signed in 2007. 

“The sliding will be something spectacular, nothing like this has been done before,” adds Novak, who has worked on the project since its inception in 1997.

Built by French joint venture Novarka assisted by 50 Ukrainian companies, the structure impresses with both its dimensions (257-metre wide, 162m long and 109m high) and the fraught precision of the moving operation: Even a 2.5-millimetre deviation from its course can jam the NSC on its two-day, 300m journey into position.

The EBRD has managed the funding of the arch, which has cost around €1.5bn and involved donations from more than 40 governments. With the finish line now in sight, the final push is to raise €100mn to secure the project at the G7 donor assembly scheduled for April 25.

Botched test

This final multi-million whip-round comes a day before the anniversary of the 1986 explosion, caused by a botched test at the Soviet power plant located 140 kilometres north of Kyiv. The blast sent clouds of nuclear emissions billowing across large areas of Europe, forced more than 50,000 people to evacuate their homes and poisoned unknown numbers of workers involved in the clean-up. One hundred people died during and immediately after the accident, while hundreds and possibly even thousands more have died from the effects of the radiation.

A concrete sarcophagus was quickly built over the ruptured reactor to contain the worst of the radiation, and to this day it covers some 180 tonnes of enriched uranium, 70,000 tonnes of contaminated metal scrap and glass-like waste and 35 tonnes of radioactive dust.

Other ultra-modern facilities must also still be completed for the relocation and long-term storage of spent radioactive fuel accumulated at the site, although this project has been harder to raise funds for than the NSC. “It’s always been in the shadow of the new safe confinement, because it’s not as attractive and sexy,” says Novak.

When completed, this will be one of the largest fuel storage sites in Europe, says Andrei Slavin, the chief engineer of the fuel storage project who has worked at Chernobyl since 1987. “The fuel will be processed here for nine years and stored for 100. It’s the not final storage – the decision has still not been made what will happen after 100 years,” he says.

Since the total 30km exclusion zone around the plant will never be fully habitable by humans again, it is likely that the site will be used as storage for spent fuel from the rest of Ukraine’s continuing nuclear power industry too.

Wolf at the door

Meanwhile, there are plans to turn the zone into a permanent sanctuary for bear, bison, wolves and other wildlife that now flourishes around the crumbling homes of the former human inhabitants, exemplified by the ghost town of Pripyat. Located beside the plant, Pripyat took the brunt of the emissions 30 years ago but was fully evacuated only several days later.

The biosphere conservation project has been prepared and is “just waiting for the signature of the president [Petro Poroshenko] – he’s very busy”, says Hanna Vronska, Ukraine’s acting minister of ecology and natural resources.

In another case of Ukrainian policy towards predators, the government recently had to appoint a new head of the agency for Exclusion Zone Management. His key task is to bring order because contractors have been squeezed for money in exchange for permits to do their job, insiders say. Or, as the new agency chief Vitaliy Petruk puts it, “placing artificial obstacles” in the way of issuing permits.

Trilling experience

Heavily escorted visits to the zone are accompanied by the sound of trilling Geiger counters carried by participants. Visitors are also provided with radiation monitoring tags that are later taken back and their data compiled. Entering any building on the site requires passing through a radiation scanner.

In terms of Chernobyl’s hazards today, it’s a mixed picture. For the 4,000 people who work inside the exclusion zone, most of them in two-week shifts, the daily dosage of radiation is several times less than having a chest X-ray.

But then there are sharp reminders that the work to properly secure the reactor is a race against the decay of time. In 2013, wall panels and the roof of a unit at the fourth reactor collapsed. Although there was no critical release of radiation, the French construction companies had to evacuate their staff from the plant, which one project director describes as “an aching, creaking, knackered old facility”.

Apart from accidents, the main danger is in the dust spreading from contaminated ground. Smoke from numerous woodland fires around the plant also caused alarm in summer 2015, and radiation also spreads constantly through groundwater. A recent Greenpeace report on Chernobyl found that in some cases, such as in grain, radiation levels in the contaminated areas – where some 5mn people live – have actually increased. “And just as this contamination will be with them for decades to come, so will the related impacts on their health. Thousands of children, even those born 30 years after Chernobyl, still have to drink radioactively contaminated milk,” the report said.

Nuclear future

With Ukraine wracked by political and economic instability and armed conflict in its eastern territories, there is concern that Chernobyl can get pushed to the fringes of the agenda. “Ukraine is currently in a vulnerable state and cannot be left the bear this uniquely hazardous burden alone,” stresses EBRD president Suma Chakrabarti.

But although the last working reactor at Chernobyl was decomissioned in December 2000, the role of nuclear power is still firmly entrenched in Ukraine, which today has 15 reactors generating about half of its electricity.

Despite political tensions with Moscow over its seizure of Crimea and support for the rebels in East Ukraine, the country still receives most of its nuclear services and nuclear fuel from Russia. It is reducing this dependence by seeking fuel, technology and investment elsewhere, while its nuclear power inventory has continued to grow in recent years.

In 2004, Ukraine commissioned two large new reactors, and the government plans to maintain the nuclear share in electricity production to 2030, which will involve substantial new building.

Curiously, Chernobyl’s oppressive legacy seems to only reinforce and not undermine this path. “We are strongly convinced that there is a future for nuclear energy in Ukraine and the whole world, because the accident at Chernobyl could be cleaned up successfully,” says Igor Gramotkin, the general director of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.