Chernobyl—Another Casualty of the Ukraine Crisis

There’s not enough money to finish atomic disaster site’s new containment structure

Chernobyl—Another Casualty of the Ukraine Crisis Chernobyl—Another Casualty of the Ukraine Crisis
Chernobyl—Another Casualty of the Ukraine Crisis There’s not enough money to finish atomic disaster site’s new containment structure  Chernobyl’s New Safe Confinement arch under... Chernobyl—Another Casualty of the Ukraine Crisis

Chernobyl—Another Casualty of the Ukraine Crisis

There’s not enough money to finish atomic disaster site’s new containment structure 

Chernobyl’s New Safe Confinement arch under construction on April 2, 2014. SSE Chernobyl NPP photo

In 2010, Ukraine began working on a new, climate-controlled sarcophagus designed to seal off the irradiated skeleton of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant—the site of the world’s worst radiological accident.

Shaped like a giant arch, the new containment building—once finished—will survive for at least 100 years, keeping the environment safe from further pollution if the original sarcophagus nestled inside collapses.

But now the project risks being delayed by Ukraine’s political and economic crisis.

“We clearly see that our current contract for completion in October 2015 can’t be maintained,” Vince Novak, director of nuclear safety at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development—which gathers international funding for the arch—told Nuclear Engineering magazine.

“In our financial analysis we are of course making the working assumption that it will not receive any money from Ukraine in the near term,” he added. That’s because of a roiling economic and political crisis in Ukraine—worsened by the lingering threat of another Russian invasion.

Worse, there’s currently not enough funding to finish the job.

The Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukrainian city of Pripyat suffered a steam explosion in 1986. The reactor vessel caught fire and vented radiation into the air. Dozens died from radiation poisoning, and today a large region of northern Ukraine and southeastern Belarus is off-limits to human habitation.

The existing sarcophagus—constructed immediately after the disaster—is also not going to last forever. There are risks the structure could partially collapse, which would likely cause more radiation to escape in the form of dust particles.

To prevent this problem, Ukraine began work on the the New Safe Confinement project, which is a steel sarcophagus shaped like an arch and coated in radiation-degrading polycarbonate.

Constructed in two sections, the arch will eventually rise 300 feet high.

New Safe Confinement arch. SSE Chernobyl NPP photo

Because it’s still dangerous to be close to the Chernobyl reactor building for very long, engineers are building the arch in two sections around 600 feet to the west. On April 2, engineers finished gradually sliding the first half of the arch into a temporary waiting area between the construction site and the reactor building.

The next step is building the second half of the arch. Following that, engineers will link the two sections together and slide them over the reactor building. After some final touches integrating the arch with the existing building underneath, the reactor should be sealed for a century.

Engineers will then begin deconstructing the old reactor building with remotely-operated machines. For a visualization of the entire process, see this video below.

The arch also features air conditioning and ventilation systems to keep the pressure inside stable—which should help prevent radiation leaks. But this is proving more complex than the designers originally thought, according to Nuclear Engineering.

The good news is that the engineers don’t anticipate any short-term problems. The second arch should be finished later this year. However, once the completed arch is slid into place over the reactor building, construction crews will have to work in the presence of hazardous radiation, potentially slowing down the process.

At this rate, it probably won’t be finished until 2016 or 2017 at the earliest, instead of 2015 as planned. And as Novak pointed out, funding is running short.