Chernobyl starts tackling its liquid radioactive waste

2016_Chernobyl-NB-3 The road barrier at the checkpoint into the Chernobyl nuclear plant. Photo: Nils Bøhmer - Credit: Nils Bøhmer

In a major step toward cleaning up the world’s worst nuclear disaster, workers at Chernobyl have begun moving much of the stricken facility’s liquid nuclear waste into long term storage.

The commissioning of Chernobyl’s liquid radioactive treatment plant is meant to tackle the 22,000 tons of irradiated water gathered not only since the plant’s number 4 reactor exploded in 1986, but from continued operation of the plant’s other three reactors, which continued producing electricity for 14 years after the disaster.

Surprisingly, these reactors were not decommissioned until 2000, nine years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the Chernobyl plant became the newly-independent Ukraine’s inheritance from Moscow.

That the rest of the plant’s reactors continued to operate in the middle of a irradiated disaster zone serves shows how heavily Ukraine has depended on nuclear power since it struck out on its own. That dependence – despite atomic energy’s domestic unpopularity – hasn’t dropped with time: Kiev still relies on its other 15 reactors to produce a little over half the country’s electricity.

That dependence has come at a high cost. It will take another 28 years before radiation at Chernobyl notches down acceptable levels, and it won’t be until 2065 that all facilities and debris at the site will be dismantled and safely bunkered.

Chernobyl’s wastewater treatment plant, which went into operation last month, is expected to guzzle away at the radioactive water and other liquids accrued at the site at the rate of about 2,000 tons a year for the next 20 years.

While that’s going on, treated water will be moved to Chernobyl’s on-site long term radioactive waste storage facility, called the Vektor Complex, which will be the main workhorse in storing both the waste that came of the plant’s operation and the radioactive debris resulting from the disaster itself.

The €27 million complex, which was financed by the European Commission, went into operation in 2008. It will eventually be responsible for holding some 21,000 spent nuclear fuel rods, many of them damaged.

But its most pressing chore will be to handled the irradiated debris that constitutes what’s left of the exploded reactor number 4.

In 2016, the New Safe Confinement, the world’s larges moving structure, was put into place over the rubble of the reactor. It replaced the makeshift sarcophagus, a cracking concrete structure that was poured in haste over the radioactive flames that burned in the accident’s aftermath.

Within the new structure – which is big enough completely enclose London’ St. Paul’s Cathedral Norte Dame in Paris – are an estimated 200 tons of uranium fuel, which will be sorted out from other debris by cranes and remotely operated robotic tools. It was built by the financial contributions of 40 countries, which were coordinated by the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development. The final price tag was €1.5 billion.

While it will be decades before the zone surrounding Chernobyl will be habitable again, the Ukrainian government is trying to make the best of it by building a solar park on the site.

The effort is taking off. With the electricity infrastructure still intact, French and Chinese investors have flocked to the disaster zone with solar panels, taking advantage of Kiev’s cheap land leases and lavish incentives.

More of Ukraine’s efforts to rehabilitate the Chernobyl site can be found in Bellona’s new report on Ukraine’s nuclear industry.