By Nathan Hodge
25 April 2016
CHERNOBYL, Ukraine (The New York Times) – Enter the Chernobyl zone, and you might expect the worst: Security guards at a checkpoint 19 miles away from the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident scan departing vehicles for signs of radiation, as wolfish strays linger around the checkpoint.
But pass the derelict villages and collective farms evacuated after the disaster 30 years ago this month, and a new skyline emerges over the ill-fated nuclear plant.
A workforce of around 2,500 people is finishing a massive steel enclosure that will cover Chernobyl’s reactor 4, where the radioactive innards of the nuclear plant are encased in a concrete sarcophagus hastily built after the disaster. The zone is now aglow with the reflective safety vests of construction workers.
If all goes to plan, the new structure—an arch more than 350 feet high and 500 feet long—will be slid into place late next year over the damaged reactor and its nuclear fuel, creating a leak-tight barrier designed to contain radioactive substances for at least the next 100 years.
The project, known as the New Safe Confinement, is a feat of engineering. It will take two or three days to slide the 36,000-ton structure into place. The arch, which looks something like a dirigible hangar, is large enough to cover a dozen football fields.
“You could put Wembley Stadium underneath here, with all the car parks,” said David Driscoll, the chief safety officer for the French consortium running the construction site.
Three decades ago, an army of workers scrambled to build a concrete sarcophagus around Chernobyl Reactor 4, which released a radioactive plume after a reactor fire and explosion on 26 April 1986.
At least 30 people died as an immediate result of the accident, which contaminated parts of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia and sent radioactive dust and debris over Europe. Pripyat, the company town of 50,000, was completely evacuated.
Emergency workers and evacuees received doses of radiation significantly above natural background levels, according to the World Health Organization. Researchers acknowledge high levels of thyroid cancer among people who were children at the time of the accident, from exposure to radioactive iodine.
An exclusion zone remains around the Chernobyl plant, keeping it off limits to all but authorized workers, most of whom live in a town just outside the zone. [more]