KIEV–Today’s 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster brings a silver lining with a cloud: The wreck of the No. 4 reactor that blew up during safety tests on April 26, 1986, will by the end of next year be sealed to prevent further radioactive leakage for the next 100 years.
But what happens after the shelter is put in place, Nils Bøhmer, Bellona’s executive director and nuclear physicist said from Kiev, is apparently up to Ukraine. And what Ukraine will have to swallow is a nuclear decommissioning and spent nuclear fuel storage crisis it has barely pocket change to pay for.
In the panic that followed the nightmare catastrophe – still considered the worst nuclear accident of all time – more than 600,000 “liquidators” made up of engineers, nuclear technicians, fire fighters, the Soviet Military and reservists, and many ordinary citizens, were called in to staunch the radioactive breach that reached as far as Sweden and was measurable around the world.
Photo: Ukrainian State Inspection
Something had to be done to quell its flow and hopefully extinguish the blaze of 220 tons of burning uranium melting like candle wax through the reactor’s core. They devised the notorious “sarcophagus” – a giant tomb of cement and steel weighing hundreds of tons to dump on top of the gash in the reactor left by the explosion.
Most of those who coordinated building the sarcophagus had little in the way of protective gear, mostly work clothes and a surgical cap and mask, former liquidator Leonid Lvov told Bellona in an account that is hardly unfamiliar. “No real protection at all,” Lvov said.
As an engineer, he participated in guiding its construction by peeking out of a bunker to guide laborers welding steel and pouring concrete just quickly enough to avoid getting irradiated.
“We had to build this at the exclusion of better plans,” said Lvov. “Even though it wasn’t more than a tin can, it was the only thing we could do on short notice to contain the radiation.”
To Lvov’s surprise, it actually worked – and for longer than he expected. They got lucky, he said.
Then, a few years ago, the sarcophagus was reinforced when it began to collapse, something that
would have caused a second catastrophe and more fallout to blow into the winds and once again coat northern Ukraine, Belarus and Western Russia. The sarcophagus was through.
The New Safe Confinement, begun in 2010, is supposed to finish the job begun three decades ago, and will slide into place over the reactor by the end of 2017.
Built by donations from more than 40 nations managed by the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development, the €1.5 billion, 30,000 ton structure will seal in about 5,500 tons of radioactive sand, lead, boric acid, tens of thousands of tons of irradiated concrete and steel, and the and the 220 tons of melted uranium fuel – dubbed by workers as the “elephants foot” for its misshaped appearance.
The New Safe Confinement’ impressive stats
It’s the largest moveable object on earth, and tall enough for the statue of liberty to stand comfortably inside it without bumping her spikes. Shaped like an enormous airplane hangar, the Confinement’s arch is covered in a shiny double layer of stainless steel, visible over the rooftops of the abandoned city of Pripyat. The space between the inner and outer skins will circulate dried air, ensuring it will not rust, and the space will be depressurized to prevent the escape of radioactive dust.
Designed to resist the intense heat of a fire and the deep freeze of a Ukrainian winter, all while maintaining its flexibility, the building will also be able withstand an earthquake or a tornado with winds up to 206 miles per hour.
Once the New Safe Containment is sealed over reactor No 4, two giant hover cranes will carry remote-controlled manipulator arms, a core drill, a concrete crusher and a ten-ton vacuum cleaner to break apart and clean up the reactor.
All good things must end
And that is the silver lining. The cloud is this: The EBRD says its work is done – or at least it has not, according to press reports, released plans for the Containment’s deconstruction and burial once it’s work is done.
Debt-ridden and politically precarious Ukraine says it would take on further responsibilities for developing never-before-seen technologies to extract the elephant’s foot and put it into safe storage.
On top of that, the spent nuclear fuel from the first three reactors at Chernobyl – which, astonishingly continued to produce electricity until the last of them was taken off-grid in 2000 – likewise has to be stored.
For these reactors, several separate storage units have been built, also meant to last for 100 years. But Bøhmer is skeptical of this plan.
The dismantlement of the first three reactors is expected to finish up by 2064, but so far, only €45 million in EU and Ukrainian funding has been secured to complete that process, World Nuclear News reported. Ukraine’s share of that overall expense will be €1.4 million, raising serious questions about how much money it actually has to pour into the dismantlement effort.
Bøhmer called the international contributions toward decommissioning even the intact reactors “a drop in the ocean.”
Things may be worse than that. The bank accounts of Energoatom, the Ukrainian state nuclear corporation, have been frozen since March by Justice Minister Pavel Petrenko, meaning Kiev can’t even buy fresh fuel for its operating reactors.
Has the international community retreated?
What will happen to all of this waste at the stricken plant beyond the next century is a complete unknown. Bøhmer said Ukraine and its former international partners need to start charting a course today.
“Is the international community turning its back on Chernobyl?” said Bøhmer. “The whole process leading up to the New Safe Confinement was internationally led, and there seems little hope at the moment of drawing more such funding – the EBRD seems satisfied it is done.”
Bellona attempted to speak with Vince Novak, the EBRD’s Nuclear Safety Department head, who is in Ukraine this week for events surrounding the disaster’s anniversary. He was unable to return calls regarding any future efforts the EBRD may undertake by press time.
Bøhmer said the new additions of the New Safe Confinement and the spent nuclear fuel storage will make the radiation conditions at the notorious plant better than they are today. But the most critical issue, he said, is siting a long-term repository for the waste and spent fuel that will keep it safe not just for hundreds, but many thousands of years.
“There is nothing being done to find a final burial place for this spent fuel,” Bøhmer said. “I doubt the Ukraine is even capable of doing this, and it’s not on their agenda.”
How to start a repository in several grueling years
Russian, the United States, the UK, Sweden and Finland have all undertaken the siting of such deep geologic repositories. But even in the most successful circumstances – like Sweden – site selection proceeds actual construction by decades.
Russia is now considering a deep geologic repository in its Western Siberian Krasnoyarsk region. The National Operator for Radioactive Waste Management (NO RAO) expects to have an underground laboratory to study geological conditions complete by 2024. The study process will run for nine years.
If in 2033 – and it’s still a big if – circumstances are found to be favorable, it will take at least 20 more years to build the repository, which would house 20,000 tons of spent fuel and radioactive waste, not even enough for the 22, 000 tons of spent nuclear fuel that’s accrued in Russia as of today, and which remains stored onsite at its nuclear stations.
And those are the success stories. The US’s Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage site was shelved in 2009 after $19.5 billion and 27 years of work when its structural integrity was found to endanger the Los Angeles basin’s water supply.
Bøhmer noted that if Ukraine is to pursue serious long term storage for the shambles of Chernobyl, it should begin now the process of siting a long term repository, but his expectations that would happen were bleak.
“For now, the whole Chernobyl cleanup is relying on a series of hundred year plans – wait a hundred years and hope something improves in the meantime,” said Bøhmer.