Cleaning up Chernobyl to take decades

Parasjagu ehitatakse plahvatanud reaktorile uut sarkofaagi, mis peaks paika saama hiljemalt tuleva aasta mais, kuid ilmselt jõutakse nii kaugele juba selle aasta lõpuks.

PHOTO: Sander Ilvest / Postimees

Perhaps surprisingly, Estonia is still investing tens of thousands of euros in liquidation of the effects of Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Also, Estonia is symbolically involved in the opening of the nuclear waste storage to be opened next year – among many others, equipment made in Estonia is used as well. 

Sure, the sums given by Estonia for Chernobyl via EBRD are marginal – of the two billion euros, we paid €25,000 in 2011 and €30,000 last year.

What matter’s though, is that the problem is being dealt with. Therefore, as the catastrophe was commemorated last week, Estonia was thanked separately and repeatedly.

The outcome of the Pripyat disaster will take decades more to deal with. For the sake of clarity: the Pripyat nuclear power station is in operation till today and is scheduled to do so up until 2064. Daily, 2,600 of staff travels to works here for eight hours.

For the most part, they dwell a couple of dozen of kilometres off the epicentre of the catastrophe.

As a reactor exploded on April 26th 1986, it cut off but a part of the capacity of the plant. The first and second reactor kept on operating. The only change was that the construction of fifth and sixth reactors was discontinued. Even the cranes are still there, idle.

Handle properly

For the Soviet Union, Pripyat was an object of industrial pride. By the time of the disaster, it had reached bare 85 percent of the planned capacity. In a moment, it all changed. «And it wasn’t the atomic energy’s fault, but simple human error,» said former president of Latvia Valdis Zatlers – among those to sent for clean-up, back then – at the catastrophe conference in Kiev last Friday. «Atomic energy is very good energy. It just needs to be handled properly.»

The area around Pipyat is still off limits for civilians. Which will not mean it would be hazardous for those there for a short while. About 350 metres from the explosion site, only on the ground the radioactivity level is shown to be 2.5 above the natural. Therefore, it is forbidden to take items along from the ground.

The closer to the reactor, the reading goes up toll it exceeds the natural by 60m to 100 times. Right, there world’s largest covering structure is being built under French management and by hands of Turks. Locals are trusted with the simpler tasks.

And that’s what the Estonia euros are given for. The construction of the new sarcophagus is a giant task begun as early as 2009 – as the current one is leaking and needs to be replaced. During preparations, 75,000 cubic metres of radioactive surface were removed.  

Now, it is finishing line and by end of May 2017  the sarcophagus must be in place. To make it, some 1,500 people toil daily on location.

Project managers say the sarcophagus is calculated to last at least 50 years while special solutions will stretch that to about a hundred. «In the reactor that exploded, there is still 140–160 tonnes of radioactive substance. It must be kept from getting into the air,» said project manager.

Precision storage

Five hundred metres off, another giant object is underway. The storage for nuclear fuel. It is here that special equipment comes from Estonia. Next year, it becomes Ukraine’s top hazardous spot regarding potential contamination as the liquid stuff is carried there by railway.

There, man controlled technology will separate the nuclear rods maximally 12 centimetres apart. No margin for mistakes. The work will be happening under 24/7 of surveillance. The temperature may not exceed 300 degrees Celsius. Rather hot.

The time consuming labour of storing the fuel takes nine years to complete. At that, this is just for a hundred years. After that, Pripyat will need another solution.

The generations to come will still be paying for the Chernobyl consequences. And for a very long time.