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Transforming chernobyl

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Stabilisation work being carried on the west wall.

West wall of the 'sarcophagus'.

'Sarcophagus' mat, Chernobyl.

The explosion of unit 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on 26 April 1986 was caused by deficiencies in the design of its RBMK reactor and its operation. Radioactive material was discharged outside the destroyed reactor, contaminating a large area: tens of thousands of people were evacuated from within a 30 km zone around the plant and other areas in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia were heavily affected.

The response

Following the accident, the Soviet authorities acted to prevent the further spread of radioactive material remaining in the exploded reactor. A provisional structure was constructed around the wrecks of unit 4 in hazardous conditions. This temporary shelter became known as “sarcophagus” and its purpose was to confine the remaining 95 per cent of the unit’s total radioactive inventory. After two decades, the shelter has deteriorated to a critical state.

In order to remedy the human and environmental consequences of the 1986 catastrophe, the international community offered its support to the Ukrainian government. By 2000 the Ukrainian government had closed the three remaining reactors and was faced with the task of dealing with the resulting nuclear waste and spent nuclear fuel. Since 1995 the safe decommissioning of units 1-3 in Chernobyl has been supported by the EBRD-managed Nuclear Safety Account.

A comprehensive strategy for the destroyed unit 4 was designed to deal with the threat of contamination from the nuclear material enclosed in the shelter built around the unit in 1986. These works have been financed from 1997 by the EBRD, from the Chernobyl Shelter Fund.

The solution

The strategy and plan for the conversion of the 'sarcophagus' into a stable and environmentally safe system is addressed by a detailed work strategy, called the Shelter Implementation Plan (SIP). The SIP was developed in 1997 by a group of Western and Ukrainian experts and financed by the EU’s TACIS Program and the US Department of Energy. Approved by Ukraine, the G7 and EU, the SIP provided the roadmap to the solution and a basis for financial contributions for its implementation.

The implementation

At the beginning of 2005, the SIP entered its final stage. All major Chernobyl site infrastructure facilities and programmes (radiation and industrial protection, medical training, emergency response) have either been completed or will be at final acceptance over the next few months. These facilities and programmes will ensure adequate protection of people during the construction activities, which have commenced and which will significantly increase during the year. Site services in the construction zone have been renewed and a change facility constructed.

The physical work on stabilisation of the existing shelter is ongoing under the contract signed in July 2004. When completed in 2006, it will eliminate one of the principal risks - the collapse of the shelter. A comprehensive monitoring system (nuclear, radiation and seismic) as well as the site access control and physical protection system are under construction and scheduled for completion during the first half of 2006.

The tenders for the new safe confinement - the largest component of the SIP - are at an advanced stage of evaluation with contract award scheduled for Autumn 2005.

The new safe confinement will confine radioactive material within the shelter and isolate it from incoming rainwater. The shelter will be protected from further degradation or collapse caused by adverse weather, and the environment will be shielded from accidental release of radioactive dust.

The confinement is an enormous arch - with a span of 260 metres and height of 100 metres - to enclose the existing ‘sarcophagus’ and its radioactive contents for a period of minimum 100 years. It is being constructed off site to limit workers’ exposure to radiation. The arch-shaped confinement will be erected and slid into position over the old shelter via specially built rails. Once in place, safer working conditions will enable the deconstruction of unstable parts of the shelter.

Donor commitments

Today the EBRD-managed international assistance programmes in Chernobyl stand close to EUR 1 billion, which is delivered through the Chernobyl Shelter Fund (CSF) and the Nuclear Safety Account (NSA) respectively. Both programmes have been developed and carried out in close cooperation with the Ukraine authorities, whose commitment and support continue to be indispensable.

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