Chernobyl’s rolling tomb, built to last for 100 years

A €1.7bn sarcophagus has been designed to contain killer toxic nuclear fuel and dust

 

From afar, the massive, dome-shaped structure looks like it could be a sports building or aeroplane hangar. Surrounded by forests that have returned to take over the land and swamps around Chernobyl, the dully named “New Safe Confinement” looks entirely out of place. But aesthetics and titles are not important when the it’s job is to keep Ukraine and wider Europe safe from nuclear annihilation for the next century.

In the 30 years since the meltdown at Chernobyl’s reactor No 4 awoke the world to the dangers of nuclear energy, these weeks are the most critical. A sealing structure, a sarcophagus higher than the Statue of Liberty, has been slowly rolled in place to cover the existing concrete structure that was built to last for . . . 30 years.

The new arch-shaped shield structure will replace the building hastily put together in the months following the accident by teams that totalled 500,000, and that, to this day, is monitored by 3,000 workers.

The new, €1.7 billion sarcophagus will keep more than 250 tonnes of toxic nuclear fuel and dust safely entombed, is it hoped, for the next century. The final sealing process will take place over the coming months before it is handed over to Ukrainian authorities next November.

The staggering figures behind the project speak to just how dangerous a place Chernobyl is, and will remain for generations to come: The new sarcophagus could hold Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty, or two 747 jumbo jets. Built on a concrete foundation of 20,000 cubic metres, the shield is the biggest movable object ever made, and can withstand an EF class-three tornado (gusts of up to 266km/hour) or a once-in-10,000-year earthquake.

Sixty specialists have been charged with ensuring engineers, designers and construction workers are kept safe from the radiation, which today is 120 times less than during the days after the explosion.

Safety challenge

“It is a unique project. Tailor-made solutions had to be developed for many aspects of the programme. It took place in a highly contaminated environment which, of course, is a particular challenge for worker safety, the highest priority for us,” says Balthasar Lindauer, deputy director of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development’s nuclear safety department, which oversees the project.

The New Safe Confinement will require some 170 workers for routine operation and maintenance alone. But the sarcophagus is more than just a covering: inside it are remote-controlled cranes that will slowly dismantle the original structure from the inside.

Of course, on the ground in the exclusion zone, none of the specifics are apparent. At the outer checkpoint at the edge of 30km zone, guards stop and check that visitor IDs match up with a list approved by the authorities in Kiev. Some 20kms further in, having passed packs of friendly dogs, a grocery shop and lines of abandoned homes, another checkpoint comes into view. Not long after, the 110m-high sarcophagus is briefly visitor beyond a cluster of trees.

The story of the night and days following April 26th, 1986 is one of the most chilling of the 20th century. Human error caused an explosion and fire that spilt tonnes of radiation and contaminated dust into the atmosphere. By Mikhail Gorbachev’s own admission, Sweden knew something drastically bad had happened before the Soviet Union ever did. In Chernobyl, families in the nearby town of Pripyat went on with life for a full 36 hours before being evacuated.

Among the on-site scientists leading emergency work, the major fear was that water initially used to put out the fire could come in contact with the molten nuclear fuel as it burned through the reactor’s concrete floor. This would set off an explosion capable of levelling cities as far away as Kiev and Minsk.

Exposed faces

At the kitschy Ukrainian National Chernobyl Museum in Kiev, haunting video footage played on a loop shows workers, faces and hands exposed to the elements, as they shovel smashed pieces of graphite surrounding the core rods off the damaged roof of the reactor.

“When they came in,” recalled a nurse at the receiving hospital in Moscow at the time, “they were laughing and joking. Within weeks, they all died.”

Thirty-one people died from direct contamination that melted their bones and bodies from the inside out. Belarusians across the border suffered more than most, victims to the whim of local wind direction that night. Thousands more are believed to have died from radiation-linked illnesses in the three decades since.

Concerns remain: Ukraine has been locked in civil war with Russian-backed separatists for much of the past three years, and locals say security forces feared the nuclear plant might become a target. In 2014, at the height of the fighting in the east, security around the exclusion zone was stepped up.

Comments by Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko at a November 29th ceremony in Chernobyl were laced with references to Ukraine’s ongoing political problems and enemies, illustrating the level of tension the country continues to experience.

In the exclusion zone, forest fires during the dry summer and autumn months are a worry. But most disquieting is that the new sarcophagus can be considered no more than a temporary solution – the high levels of radiation will remain at Chernobyl for at least another thousand years.

Staff involved in constructing the new shield and monitoring the condition of the old one have heard this all before.

Drinking and hunting

Work inside the eerie exclusion zone is dominated by safety. Those charged with monitoring the stability of the original sarcophagus work 15-day shifts every month. Pipes delivering water to the workers are not buried into the soil to avoid any possible contamination. There is a gym, and a bar and restaurant serve alcohol for only two hours a day. Curfew is 10pm. To kill time and relieve boredom, some workers illegally hunt the abundant wild deer and fish.

Ireland is one of 26 countries that contributed to funding for the construction, to the tune of €8 million. Belfast native John Metcalfe, a design manager at Novarka, the French consortium in charge of building the sarcophagus, has worked on the project from Ukraine for the 3½ years. “Because of the magnitude of it and importance of what it’s containing,” he says, “absolutely it’s an historic event.”

Though Metcalfe lives just outside the exclusion zone, he and other staff must go through a lengthy series of checkpoints and safety precautions before their working day begins. “When we get to the site, we go through a changing facility to change clothes,” he says. “Different areas of the site are classified differently, and we must wear dosimeters [radiation level monitors]) at all times; I have to wear three.”

Despite being involved for more than 42 months, Metcalfe remains amazed by what’s been achieved: “The most incredible part for me is to build something this big that has to move.”

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