Thirty Years After Chernobyl: Cleanup Continues

Thirty years ago, the world’s worst civilian nuclear disaster occurred at a nuclear plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine. In the very place where the explosion spewed radioactive material across the region and into Western Europe, master engineers are now building the Chernobyl Arch. The arch represents a new level of safety for Chernobyl.

“While the number of radioactive particles released during the explosion and subsequent fire was enormous, they came from only about five tons of the reactor fuel. Close to 200 tons of fuel—uranium and its highly radioactive fission byproducts—remain in the bowels of the destroyed building.” When finished, the arch will be placed over the shelter that houses the remains of the reactor, and it will be able to contain any radioactive dust that might otherwise escape and cause damage to surrounding communities. 

The 32,000-ton arch, engineers hope, will stand for 100 years—the time they assume it will take to finish fully cleaning the area of nuclear fallout. At a cost of $1.5 billion, the United States and 30 other nations are financing this immense project in hopes that they can contribute to what experts believe will be the last stage of radioactive cleanup in the area.

The New York Times article, “Chernobyl: Capping a Catastrophe” poignantly remarks:

“With nations debating the future of atomic power as one way to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and fight climate change, the arch is also a stark reminder that nuclear energy, for all of its benefits, carries enormous risks. When things go wrong, huge challenges follow.”

Japan is experiencing a similar clean-up difficulty from the Fukushima meltdowns three years ago. Countries around the world may be able to learn from the design and execution of the Chernobyl Arch as they seek to address similar disasters.

There is another risk that the arch is hoping to avoid: rust. The arch is being built with rustproof stainless steel, while dehumidifiers will treat the air so that the risk of rust can be further eliminated. Experts hope these measures will allow the structure to stand for 100 years. Others, like Vince Novak, the director of nuclear safety for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, believe the Chernobyl Arch could stand for up to 300 years.

What are the costs (financial, environmental and human) of investing in nuclear power? What are the benefits?

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