Movement of New Confinement Structure at Chernobyl signals new stage in decommissioning process

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The Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine is entering a new period in the decommissioning and mitigation stage of the response to the 1986 nuclear disaster at the Unit 4 reactor.

During the last week of November, 2016, just before a fresh blanket of snow covered the plant, workers moved the new confinement structure in place over the sarcophagus that was erected in 1986 to stem the release of radioactive materials into the environment.

The author at Chernobyl after exiting the control room of the Unit 4 reactor in November 2016.

I spent the majority of the last month in Ukraine, at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, as a member of the last international delegation allowed on-site before the arch was moved.  I am currently working on reviewing my notes and data and will write a new series of editorials soon.  It was incredible to witness how much progress had been made on-site in just the last year.  The experience showed me that the workers at Chernobyl are willing, and able, to do the work – they just need the resources and assistance.

The majority of the time we were at the Chernobyl plant, the entire facility was closed down to international delegations in preparation for the movement of the New Confinement Structure.  We were very fortunate to have official status which allowed us to remain on-site even after it was restricted.  In the worker town of Slavutych I ran into Simon Evans – Hans Blix’s right hand man and Associate Director at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (the international financier of the new confinement structure).  Evans first response to my salutation was “What are you doing here?”.

Those last days at the plant before the New Confinement Structure was moved in place were full of activity and anticipation, everyone was on edge, would everything go as planned?  It was incredible to witness the resolve and efforts of the Chernobyl workers, despite the pressures that were being placed upon them.

The New Confinement Structure in place over the Sarcophagus. The building to the left of the ventilation stack is the Unit 3 reactor, which was constructed as a mirror image of the Unit 4 reactor.

The new confinement structure, or “The Arch” as it is called, is the biggest movable object ever constructed, and there were many problems along the way that had to be dealt with.  Even up until the last week before the arch was moved, there were serious concerns about the ventilation system and the overall weight of the new confinement structure.  But now the arch has moved, and the workers can begin to focus on the next stages of the decommissioning plan – as soon as they locate the funds to acquire the necessary equipment and to perform the work.

A view of the New Confinement Structure from the west. The western end of the turbine building can be seen on the lower right half of the New Confinement Structure.
A view of the New Confinement Structure from the west. The western end of the turbine building can be seen on the lower right half of the New Confinement Structure.

It will still take a few years of close monitoring before experts are able to determine how stable the new confinement structure is, and whether any additional works will have to be completed to increase the integrity of the structure and improve its fit over the original sarcophagus.

There is still a great deal of concern at Chernobyl these days, now that the new confinement structure is in place, the international community will be content to walk away and forget about Chernobyl – little does the world realize that now is when the REAL work begins.  Now is when the workers of Chernobyl need us and our support the most!

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