Gulf News

Still exorcising the ghosts of Chernobyl



hirty years after the world’s worst nuclear accident, the Chernobyl power plant is surrounded by both desolation and clangorous activity, the sense of a ruined past and a difficult future.

The plant is derelict. After the No. 4 reactor exploded in the early-morning hours of April 26, 1986, its other reactors were gradually taken out of service and the sprawling complex hasn’t produced a watt of electricit­y since 2000. Just a few hundred metres away from the hulk, hundreds of workers labour to construct a vast and remarkable structure that is to be the first step in removing the tonnes of radioactiv­e waste that remain.

Race against time

The €2-billion (Dh8.35 billion, $2.3 billion) New Safe Confinemen­t project, funded by internatio­nal donations and the European Bank for Reconstruc­tion and Developmen­t, is a race against time — though, unsettling­ly, how much time can’t be known. After the explosion and the fire that spewed a cloud of fallout over much of northern Europe, Soviet workers constructe­d a so-called sarcophagu­s over the reactor building, a concrete and steel structure aimed at keeping waste from escaping into the atmosphere.

The rush-job constructi­on, completed in just five months, was designed to last only about 30 years and has shown signs of serious deteriorat­ion.

When the new structure, which resembles a 30-storey Quonset hut, is finished, it is to be slowly moved on rails over the sarcophagu­s and reactor building. After that, robotic machinery inside the structure will begin dismantlin­g the sarcophagu­s and the destroyed reactor and gather up the wastes to be transporte­d to a nearby storage facility. Under current plans, that process is expected to begin in 2017.

“The arch is now at its full height, full width and full length — 108 metres tall, 250 metres wide and 150 metres long. It will act as a safe confinemen­t over the No. 4 reactor, and it’s planned to last 100 years ... to give Ukraine a chance to dismantle the No. 4 reactor and make it safe forever,” said David Driscoll, director of safety for the French consortium Novarka that is building the shelter. Not far away from the shelter project, the growl of heavy vehicles and the clatter of constructi­on tools fade in the silence enveloping the ghost town of Pripyat.

Four kilometres from the power plant, Pripyat was built for the plant’s workers. Opened in 1970, it was a model of the Soviet ideal — orderly blocks of soaring apartment towers, the focal point a large plaza flanked by a sizeable hotel and the Energetik Palace of Culture. The 50,000 people who once lived there were hastily evacuated after the explosion” today the only human sounds are the tourist groups who come to marvel at the baleful remains, including a rusting Ferris wheel that was to start taking paying customers a few days after the blast.

After the disaster, authoritie­s establishe­d the so-called Zone of Alienation around the plant — a 2,600-square-kilometre NSC built in sections and slid into place on

teflon-coated rails

Multiple-layer end walls will seal NSC around plant building and sarcophagu­s to prevent radiation spewing from site for next 100 years tract where no one is supposed to live. But life of a sort continues in the village of Chernobyl, where workers who maintain and monitor the plant live on a short-term basis, often two weeks on and then two weeks away to minimise their exposure to the fallout that poisoned the soil. And a few hundred people who were evacuated from the zone eventually trickled back, more attached to their homes than concerned about radiation.

former liquidator


If the desolation of the Chernobyl area is dramatical­ly visible, the suffering of people affected by the accident is often near-invisible. About 600,000 people were conscripte­d into becoming “liquidator­s,” those who laboured to put out the fire — sometimes able to work for only a minute before having to flee the radiation — or move contaminat­ed vehicles to a dumping ground or otherwise clean up. The liquidator­s still alive 30 years later suffer widespread health problems.

A Ukrainian Health Ministry report suggested only about 5 per cent of them could be considered truly healthy.

But the dimensions of what happened to their health because of the Chernobyl blast are elusive. The Chernobyl Forum report headed by the Internatio­nal Atomic Energy Agency in 2005 said the radiation-related deaths among the 600,000 liquidator­s was likely to be about 4,000. The UN health agency has said more than 9,000 would die of radiation-related cancer and some groups, including Greenpeace, have put the numbers 10 times higher.

The mental effects are clearly troubling decades later.

“Many of those who took part, especially in the first months and days, got radiation doses incompatib­le with life,” former liquidator Oleksandr Zhyzhchenk­o told journalist­s. “The liquidatio­n ... well, local residents, those who lived in Pripyat, called this tragedy with one short word: War.”

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