Solar power comes to Chernobyl’s nuclear wasteland

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

The area surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, site of the world’s worst nuclear plant disaster, may not be inhabitable for another 24,000 years ­– but that’s not stopping Ukraine from trying to squeeze some positive energy out of the remains of the radioactive ruin.

On Friday, a joint Ukrainian-German consortium unveiled some 3,800 solar panels built in the shadow of the notorious plant – now encased in a giant sarcophagus – that engineers say will produced enough electricity to power 2,000 local homes.

For the Ukrainian government – which inherited the mess of Chernobyl when the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991 – wrenching a sliver of good news from the irradiated exclusion zone has been a long time in the coming.

“It’s not just another solar power plant,” Evhen Variagin, the chief executive of Solar Chernobyl LLC, told Reuters. “It’s really hard to underestimate the symbolism of this particular project.”

In 1986, a botched fuel test in Chernobyl’s number 4 reactor caused an explosion, sending clouds of radiation across Europe and forcing hundreds of thousands of people to evacuate.

Thirty-one plant workers and firefighters died in the immediate aftermath of the accident. The longer-term death toll from radiation related cancers has been harder to quantify, though many estimates put this figure well into the tens of thousands.

Understandably, land around the wreckage of Chernobyl can be got for cheap. It’s these low real estate prices – along with the robust power transmission infrastructure left mostly intact after the accident – that the Ukrainian government has been offering solar developers for the past few years.

2016_Chernobyl-NB-6 A memorial at the entrance to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Photo: Nils Bøhmer - Credit: Nils Bøhmer/Bellona

The new one-megawatt solar plant was built by Ukrainian company Rodina and Germany’s Enerparc AG, costing around $1.2 million and benefiting from feed-in tariffs that guarantee a certain price for power during the first years of its operation.

It is the first time the site has produced power since 2000, when the nuclear plant was finally shut down the reactors that had survived the catastrophe. Valery Seyda, head of the Chernobyl nuclear plant, told Reuters it had looked like the site would never produce energy again.

2006_Chernobyl-NB-17 Within the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Photo: Nils Bøhmer - Credit: Nils Bøhmer/Bellona

“But now we are seeing a new sprout, still small, weak, producing power on this site and this is very joyful,” he said.

Two years ago, a giant arch weighing 36,000 tons was pulled over the nuclear power station to create a casement to block radiation and allow the remains of the reactor to be dismantled safely.

But the surrounding 2000 square kilometers of land is still not safe to visit for more than a few hours. This proved a complication while building solar arrays. But since their ongoing operation is essentially unmanned, the dangers to personnel are minimal.

The new solar plant comes at a time of increased investment in renewables in Ukraine. Between January and September, more than 500 MW of renewable power capacity was added in the country, more than twice as much as in 2017, the government says.

Other solar investors could increase that. France’s Engie SA told Bloomberg in January that could build a gigawatt-sized project in the Chernobyl disaster zone. China’s System Integration Technology and China National Complete Engineering Corp have also said they are interested in building a solar park in the area.

If all of this bears fruit, the Chernobyl area could end up producing 2.5 gigawatts of solar produced electricity, pumping out half of what Chernobyl uses to produce before it melted down and exploded – with absolutely none of the danger.

It would also curb Ukraine’s dependence on Russia for nuclear fuel, natural gas and other energy needs that Moscow has not been shy about holding hostage in its ongoing political and military hostilities against Kiev.

Pulling itself out of the social and psychological mire of Soviet produced nuclear past could only do Ukraine a lot of needed good, as Bellona discusses in its report on the country’s nuclear industry.

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development ­– which financed Chernobyl’s New Containment Structure – is understandably wary of bankrolling projects in a radioactive exclusion zone. The solar farms, after all, are installed and maintained by people.

Yet they are challenges worth grappling with. If Ukraine manages to create a renewable energy rebirth on the site of the nuclear disaster that helped fell the Soviet Union, the site would become a symbol of a different kind.