Containment still an issue 30 years after Chernobyl disaster

By Ed Adamczyk Follow @adamczyk_ed Contact the Author   |   April 26, 2016 at 3:45 AM
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PRIPYAT , Ukraine, April 26 (UPI) -- As brief commemorative ceremonies are scheduled to take place Tuesday on the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster in Pripyat, more long-term projects to tame the continuing threat of radiation are underway at the site of the ruined nuclear reactor.

On April 26, 1986, during a systems test, reactor No. 4 at the massive nuclear plant experienced a large power spike, causing steam explosions that sent a radioactive cloud more than 1,000 miles to Scandinavia.

Thirty-one people died that day at the site, located about 80 miles north of Ukraine's capital of Kyiv. Twenty-eight more people died of acute radiation poisoning in the months and years that followed.

A 2005 U.N. report, though, estimated that up to 4,000 people would eventually die from the effects of the explosion.

The radiation contaminated the air in Ukraine and the adjacent Soviet states of Belarus and Russia, and sent radioactive debris over Europe, where mothers fed their children iodine tablets and forbid them from playing in the dirt. At least 5 percent of the radioactive core of Chernobyl reactor No. 4 was sent into the atmosphere.

The company town of Pripyat was abandoned by its 50,000 residents, and a 1,000 square-mile exclusion zone was established, more a ghost province than a ghost town.

Officials at the time said the disaster, the only example in commercial nuclear power's history involving radiation-related fatalities, was a unique occurrence. The reactor's flawed design was not copied anywhere else, and Eastern Bloc secrecy was a contributing factor in the accident.

An increase in thyroid cancer among area children was noted, but the legacy of the Chernobyl disaster includes major changes in safety regulations, and a quick increase in cooperation between the nuclear industries of the East and West.

But the effects of the worst nuclear disaster in history would be felt through the decades.

Wild animals have returned in abundance to the area, and are living normally despite the radiation, as have at least 158 former residents, mostly elderly, who insist on clinging to their homesteads.

These residents, with an average age of 75, say they show no ill effects from living in the exclusion zone, but at least one baby was born there in 1999 suffering from anemia.

The Ukrainian government regards the area as still contaminated and uninhabitable. Designated a tourist area in 2011, people may now visit parts of the exclusion zone after showing identification for short periods of time.

Meanwhile, an illegal logging trade is flourishing within the protected and contaminated forests near the center of the exclusion zone. The area, fenced by barbed wire, is nicknamed the zone of alienation, and away from the fixed routes of delegations and tourists, pine trees are felled and sold in Ukraine and Romania, where the lumber can be shipped throughout Europe.

Vadim Vnukov of Stop Corruption, a Ukrainian citizens' group formed to combat the country's persistent government corruption problem despite its 1991 independence from the Soviet Union, noted a potential health risk for anyone using the lumber.

"We thought these incidents were isolated and unimportant, but when we started to investigate, it turned out the problem was gigantic and systemic. There is a clear health risk here. We ran into a system worked out over the decades, and under any government, this system of corruption was preserved," he said, The New York Times reported.

In the months after the disaster, the Soviet Union covered the damaged reactor building in concrete -- a so-called sarcophagus -- to keep more radiation from leaking out. The rush project was completed in seven months and was designed to last 30 years.

To replace the sarcophagus, about 2,500 construction workers are now building the world's largest movable structure, a steel arch 360 feet high and 540 feet wide to serve as a shell to cover the ruined reactor and its remaining nuclear fuel. The leak-tight barrier, designed to cover radioactive contaminants for at least 100 years, will be slid into place over a three-day period in 2017. The 36,000-ton structure, on rails, is large enough to cover a dozen football fields could enclose the Statue of Liberty, from ground to torch.

The methodical manufacture of the shell, called the New Safe Confinement, is in contrast to the near-panic situation in 1986, when billions of tons of concrete was poured into the melted reactor with little regard to worker safety. The workforce, overseen by two French project management companies, is monitored closely for radiation exposure, and operates in shifts of 15 days followed by evacuation from the area and 15 days of rest.

A companion project, known as the interim Spent Fuel Storage Facility, or ISF2, involves the construction of a building to safely store spent nuclear rods for the next 100 years.

The $2.45 billion project is underwritten by more than 40 international donors and the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development, a non-profit lender facing a crisis of its own. The venture includes a separate storage facility for spent rods of the other three, now offline, Chernobyl reactors.

Lenders were expected to meet later this week to discuss financing to complete the project.

Paying for the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster will be a problem for the already-burden Ukrainian government for decades. The country's economy has lately suffered blows from insurgents fighting on its eastern border with Russia.

"As you know Ukraine right now is in a very difficult financial situation" Igor Gramotkin, general director of the Chernobyl plant, told The Wall Street Journal. "But I am confident the economy of Ukraine will recover and will be able to support all of the project activities."

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