International consortium funds project to make disaster site safe

The Guardian

Nick Paton Walsh in Moscow
Monday January 13, 2003

The contaminated site of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine - the scene more than 16 years ago of the worst nuclear disaster in history - will be capped by a huge vault designed to "seal" the plant's remains for decades. A 20,000-tonne steel arch, designed by architects in San Francisco, will slide into place over the building housing the main reactor. Both ends of the arch will be sealed, in an attempt to contain the radioactive material still inside the reactor. Engineers will then work with robotic cranes to neutralize the material that remains at the site. "It is a big challenge," said Vince Novak, director of the nuclear safety department of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which is overseeing the project. "This is primarily because of the radiation involved. The shield is technically tricky, but the engineers think it is well within its capabilities.

The forthcoming 478m clean-up, of which the shield is a 155m component, will be funded by 28 countries, including the G8 and Ukraine. The shield should be ready by 2007. Mr Novak said that the shield, which will be 112 metres high, would be built away from the reactor site. The giant structure will then be slid into place on specially greased rails to limit the exposure to radiation of the project workers.

Much of the radioactive material inside the building - temporarily contained by a Russian-designed 'sarcophagus' - is a mixture of fuel, concrete, 30 tonnes of fuel dust, and 2,000 tonnes of combustibles. Experts are most worried about the radioactive "soup" that has formed in the basement, where rainwater and fuel dust have mixed. There are also concerns that the water table may have been contaminated. The shield is intended to stay in place until either the radiation threat decreases or the Ukrainian government finds a permanent storage facility for the 200 tonnes of uranium and one tonne of radioactive plutonium still inside the ruins.

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