Open­ing Re­marks

Wel­come to Slavu­tych, the trou­bled town bat­tling Ch­er­nobyl’s ra­di­a­tion

Bloomberg Businessweek (Europe) - - NEWS - By John Wen­dle Wen­dle, who’s based in Kiev, re­ports on con­flict and the en­vi­ron­ment.

Thirty years ago, on April 26, 1986, Re­ac­tor No. 4 at the Ch­er­nobyl Nu­clear Power Plant mal­func­tioned and ex­ploded dur­ing a rou­tine test. The blast threw ra­dioac­tive smoke, dust, and de­bris into the at­mos­phere, where it trav­eled as far as Nor­way. It was the world’s largest nu­clear ac­ci­dent, re­leas­ing 10 times more ra­di­a­tion than the cat­a­strophic melt­down of re­ac­tors in Fukushima pre­fec­ture, Ja­pan, in the wake of an earth­quake and tsunami in 2011. The $15 bil­lion ini­tial cleanup— in­clud­ing the hur­ried con­struc­tion of an im­mense con­crete sar­coph­a­gus to en­tomb the ra­dioac­tive re­mains—helped desta­bi­lize the al­ready wob­bly Soviet Union, which broke into 15 coun­tries in 1991. The site is now ad­min­is­tered by Ukraine, which faces a com­plex chal­lenge: It must man­age an engi­neer­ing mar­vel that’s been de­signed to con­tain Ch­er­nobyl’s poi­sonous re­mains and deal with the painful eco­nomic af­ter­math, all while ne­go­ti­at­ing with in­ter­na­tional cred­i­tors to keep the na­tional econ­omy from col­laps­ing.

The sar­coph­a­gus, which is braced against dam­aged sec­tions of the re­ac­tor build­ing, wasn’t ex­pected to last more than 20 to 30 years. To pro­vide a cen­tury more of pro­tec­tion, Ukraine, with the as­sis­tance of the Euro­pean Union, has since 2012 been con­struct­ing the New Safe Con­fine­ment. The 850-foot-wide steel shield weighs more than 30,000 tons and, at 360 feet tall, could ac­com­mo­date the Statue of Lib­erty, pedestal to torch. In Novem­ber the NSC, which looks like a gi­ant air­craft hangar, is ex­pected to glide on Te­flon and stain­less steel skids about 1,000 feet long over the top of the en­tombed re­ac­tor. (There’s still too much ra­di­a­tion em­a­nat­ing from unit 4 for con­struc­tion to be done di­rectly over it.) A mem­brane, made from the same ma­te­rial used to keep sea­wa­ter out when a sub­ma­rine launches a bal­lis­tic mis­sile, will then be at­tached be­tween the sar­coph­a­gus and the shield to trap ra­dioac­tive dust and de­bris.

“We have engi­neer­ing spe­cial­ists, con­crete, elec­tri­cal, ven­ti­la­tion, heavylift­ing, ra­dio­pro­tec­tion spe­cial­ists, trans­la­tors, and lo­gis­ti­cians,” says Ni­co­las Caille, the project di­rec­tor for No­varka, which de­signed and built the NSC. “We have peo­ple from all over work­ing here. The world has fi­nanced this project.” It’s also been some­thing of a jobs pro­gram for Ukraine. About 6,000 peo­ple are em­ployed in the zone. They get into their work clothes in chang­ing rooms, and each one car­ries an es­sen­tial piece of gear: a ra­di­a­tion meter. Work­ers stay at their jobs not by the hour but by how much ra­di­a­tion they’ve taken. Ra­di­a­tion varies around the site; higher dose rates closer to the sar­coph­a­gus re­quire spe­cial suits. But a typ­i­cal dose is about 0.006 mil­lisiev­erts per day. The high­est dose any­one got on the site in 2015 was 13 mSv. Nu­clear work­ers in the U.S. have a limit of 50 mSv of ra­di­a­tion per year, the equiv­a­lent of 1,000 X-rays.

Al­most all the work­ers live in the town of Slavu­tych, pop­u­la­tion 25,000, which the Sovi­ets built in 1986 to house peo­ple who were ei­ther work­ing at the nu­clear power plant or dis­placed by the ra­dioac­tive fall­out. It was also home to the thou­sands of “liq­uida­tors,” who made up the cleanup crews. Un­told num­bers of them died from ex­po­sure, but they pre­vented the con­tam­i­na­tion from get­ting even worse.

Those hero­ics are now deep in the past. Winded from the long climb up the NSC’s scaf­fold­ing, one worker, who asked not to be named be­cause he wasn’t autho­rized to speak to the press, puffs on a cig­a­rette and says, “To be hon­est, I’m not proud of my job. It’s not like in Soviet times, when we were told we

were do­ing every­thing for the pride of the father­land. I’m just do­ing this to put food on the ta­ble for my fam­ily.” He pulls down about $235 a month—6,000 hryv­nias, the lo­cal cur­rency—about $60 more than the av­er­age in­come in Ukraine. The com­ple­tion of the arch doesn’t grat­ify him or many of the town’s other res­i­dents. It fills them with fore­bod­ing. “The arch is the city,” says Anas­ta­sia Ro­ma­nenko, 16, hang­ing out at the lo­cal amuse­ment park. “When the arch is fin­ished, the city is fin­ished.”

Once the NSC is done, most of the res­i­dents of Slavu­tych will have to find other work. That won’t be easy. Un­em­ploy­ment in Ukraine is now well above 10 per­cent; the econ­omy shrank by al­most 10 per­cent in 2015, par­tially as a re­sult of the sep­a­ratist con­flict backed by Rus­sia in the in­dus­trial cities of the east. Although in­fla­tion has eased, in March it still stood at more than 20 per­cent. The country wouldn’t have been able to af­ford the arch at all with­out for­eign as­sis­tance. Over the years, Ukraine has re­ceived more than $370 mil­lion from the U.S. alone to care for Ch­er­nobyl.

Enor­mous amounts of money have been poured into the engi­neer­ing of the NSC. A cus­tom jack­ing process was cre­ated to lift the thou­sands of feet of gi­ant steel tub­ing, im­ported from Italy, that forms the build­ing’s struc­ture. The tubes are at­tached with some 600,000 spe­cial­ized bolts, each cost­ing about €15 ($17). “It’s the Rolls-Royce of bolts,” says Caille. The struc­ture’s been de­signed to with­stand fire, the freez­ing tem­per­a­tures of Ukraine’s win­ter, and a Level 3 tor­nado. Two gi­ant cranes made in Min­nesota, each with the di­men­sions of a Boe­ing 737, are sus­pended in­side the NSC. Con­trolled re­motely from a nearby ra­di­a­tion proof bunker, they’ll carry a plat­form fit­ted with a ma­nip­u­la­tor arm, a core drill, a con­crete crusher, and a 10-ton vac­uum cleaner that will re­move ra­dioac­tive de­bris. The au­toma­tion will cut down on the need to ex­pose hu­mans to the dan­ger­ous lev­els of ra­di­a­tion. But it will also re­duce the jobs in Slavu­tych.

Ukraine will be fi­nan­cially re­spon­si­ble for op­er­at­ing the re­mote-con­trolled cranes and treat­ing the rem­nants of the power sta­tion, which is nec­es­sary to elim­i­nate all risk of ra­dioac­tive con­tam­i­na­tion at the site. The other Ch­er­nobyl re­ac­tors have been de­com­mis­sioned but not dis­man­tled. So far, there’s been lit­tle dis­cus­sion of how that will be done. In De­cem­ber, Pres­i­dent Petro Poroshenko honored the mem­ory of those killed in the days af­ter the nu­clear dis­as­ter and in­di­cated that this year’s com­mem­o­ra­tions would fo­cus on the heroic work of the liq­uida­tors. But while the govern­ment has ac­knowl­edged the need to in­vest re­sources into the area of the catas­tro­phe, it hasn’t put for­ward any plans.

Kiev has been deal­ing with other prob­lems. It’s been em­broiled in po­lit­i­cal in­fight­ing for months. The im­passe was bro­ken only on April 14 with the nam­ing of Volodymyr Hro­is­man as prime min­is­ter. His first task is to un­lock the third dis­burse­ment of a $17.5 bil­lion bailout from the In­ter­na­tional Mon­e­tary Fund. It’s been held up since Oc­to­ber be­cause of the po­lit­i­cal wran­gling. Hro­is­man must con­tinue with an­ti­cor­rup­tion re­form to get the money. That would then open the way for more than $4 bil­lion in bi­lat­eral aid from the U.S. and the EU, among other al­lies. The govern­ment also needs to stave off re­ces­sion and more fully im­ple­ment ac­cords with the pro-Rus­sian rebels that have slowed, but not com­pletely halted, fight­ing in the east.

De­spite its cru­cial role in con­tain­ing Ch­er­nobyl for the past 30 years, Slavu­tych is too small a cog right now to catch the em­bat­tled govern­ment’s eye. Dmitry Kor­chak of the Re­gional De­vel­op­ment Agency, which the town has charged with plan­ning for its fu­ture, be­lieves Slavu­tych can be saved. He thinks with all the soon-to-be-un­em­ployed en­gi­neers, physi­cists, bi­ol­o­gists, and re­search sci­en­tists around, the govern­ment should build a univer­sity and turn Slavu­tych into a tech and re­search and de­vel­op­ment hub. Early in April, Kor­chak tried to or­ga­nize a meet­ing to be­gin rais­ing sup­port and aware­ness for his re­brand­ing cam­paign and his or­ga­ni­za­tion’s plans for the town. About 50 peo­ple said they’d come. But the day of the meet­ing was the first day of warm spring weather. “Ev­ery­one went into the for­est to grill ke­babs and drink beer,” he says. Only 12 peo­ple showed up. Six of those were or­ga­niz­ers. <BW>

The New Safe Con­fine­ment rises above the dEehsen­rte, ndim­reemt auints veonf dCih­se­qrunidobqyule volupta ecesto tes et of­fi­cat of­fi­ciant.

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