x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

New tomb for ghost of Chernobyl

Work on Chernobyl's E1.2bn sarcophagus, heavy as three Eiffel Towers, begins with more than 1,000 employees on site. Novarka, the contractor that normally builds highways and petchems plants, has a 2015 deadline for the project that has no precedent.

A $2.2 billion protective shelter is being built over the remains of the Chernobyl nuclear power station because of fears the hastily built sarcophagus may collapse after years of decay. Sergey Dolzhenko / EPA
A $2.2 billion protective shelter is being built over the remains of the Chernobyl nuclear power station because of fears the hastily built sarcophagus may collapse after years of decay. Sergey Dolzhenko / EPA

Last week, on the 26th anniversary of the world's worst nuclear disaster, work began on a gigantic structure that will entomb the remains of the stricken reactor building, a task that should be completed by 2015. April Yee reports from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine...

At the exit of one of Chernobyl's administrative buildings on to the strip of land outside the infamous nuclear plant, a red ticker above the door flickers with three real-time readings: the time, the temperature and the radiation level.

The fluctuating working conditions at the site of the world's worst nuclear disaster, where radiation levels at times rise high enough for workers to withdraw mid-shift, complicate even routine tasks such as mowing the lawn or supplying cement.

Consider the task now at hand.

On Thursday, the 26th anniversary of an explosion and start of a meltdown at Chernobyl's reactor unit 4, construction began on a 24,000-tonne steel structure to replace the patchwork shell that today covers the remains of the destroyed reactor.

The new seven-layer cladding, 20 metres thick at some places, includes a positive-pressure void designed to keep radioactive dust from escaping.

The cladding is to come from Turkey; the 600,000 bolts from Italy; and the workers from Lebanon, Syria, Ireland, India, the Philippines and farther afield.

By the time of its scheduled completion in November 2015, when it will be rolled like a railway car over the old reactor sarcophagus, the structure will be as heavy as three Eiffel Towers and roomy enough to contain a stadium or a Statue of Liberty. The total cost for the project is estimated at €1.2 billion (Dh5.84bn).

"It's a prototype, and it does not exist anywhere else in the world," says Nicolas Caillé, the project director at Novarka, the contractor involved in the project. "You have to do a perfect job."

The quest to entomb Chernobyl's remains has been a matter of urgency since the accident on April 26, 1986. After a fire broke out at the reactor, the former USSR deployed helicopters to drop 5,000 tonnes of boron, sand and lead on to the site to combat the blaze and contain radioactive materials.

Soon, an estimated 60,000 workers from around the Soviet Union began cleaning the site and erecting a concrete structure to seal the remains of the plant.

The workers, known as liquidators, received varying doses of radiation depending on how soon they were deployed and whether they worked in critical areas such as on the roof.

Because of decay and fears that the hastily built structure would collapse, it has been repaired over time while Ukraine tried to raise funds to build a more permanent structure.

The new arch - designed to last for 100 years - will include a massive red crane imported from the United States that will allow Chernobyl's workers to dismantle the plant beneath the protective shell.

The hope among Chernobyl's management is that by the time they are done with the work about half a century from today, Ukraine will have found and prepared a deep underground site for the long-term storage of highly radioactive waste.

The shell will also help to forward the plans of politicians in Ukraine and Belarus to resettle some of the areas that were contaminated by the radioactive fallout that also spread across parts of Western Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Mykola Azarov, the Ukrainian prime minister, said in a speech last week that he hoped to "revitalise" some of the areas where, 26 years later, radiation levels have fallen.

Last Wednesday, workers repainted a kerb white and mowed a lawn to prepare for a visit from Viktor Yanukovych, the Ukrainian president, who was to arrive the next day for the ceremony to start the shell construction and honour Chernobyl's legacy.

"Before 26 April, 1986, the world had an illusion of security," Mr Yanukovych said during his visit that day. "After this date, no one and nowhere can be sure of a safe future. And the events at Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant have only confirmed this bitter truth of life."

Chernobyl's existing sarcophagus looks like an industrial interpretation of a cathedral.

Two ventilation stacks - an old one, which will be demolished, and a new one that will begin working once the new shell is in place - sit at the apex of the massive roof.

Rusted portions have been repaired and the walls have been reinforced with extra supports that look like a cathedral's buttresses.

On the construction site nearby, workers in white radiation protection suits, hard hats and masks directed cement trucks under the shadow of seven immense cranes.

Five years before the construction began this month, Novarka began the work to prepare the site, including extracting twisted metal debris that had been thrown from the reactor and laying a concrete floor to shield workers from long-term exposure to the contaminated earth.

In spite of the real-time reminders of radiation, Mr Caillesays his biggest concern is the engineering. His company specialises in projects such as building petrochemical plants and civilian infrastructure, and he has come this year from managing the construction of a tunnel in Newcastle in England.

"For me, the challenge is to build the arch," says Mr Caille. "It's like building a bridge or building a tunnel. When I build a bridge, I'm interested in the bridge, not by all the cars that will use the bridge."

Inside the administrative building with the real-time temperature and radiation readings, Julia Marusich, a member of Chernobyl's international department, shows visitors from Japan's Fukushima prefecture and a Californian university's public-health institute the construction site and the engineering blueprint.

"The problem of Chernobyl won't be solved by our generation," she says. "People need time."

Will the cover be completed on time?

"We optimistically hope," says Ms Marusich, crossing fingers on both hands.

ayee@thenational.ae

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