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First section of massive containment building for Chernobyl reactor now complete

29 November 2012

The first section of a huge arch-shaped structure to be positioned over Reactor Number 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine has been assembled and raised, completing the first stage in the massive £1.2bn New Safe Confinement (NSC) project to cover up the reactor and its leaking concrete sarcophagus. 

The £1.2bn New Safe Confinement (NSC) project is due for completion in 2015
The £1.2bn New Safe Confinement (NSC) project is due for completion in 2015

The reactor, which exploded on April 26, 1986, killed 31 people immediately and released a fallout plume that contaminated hundreds of square kilometres across Europe. Considered the world's worst nuclear disaster, the incident is estimated to have led to 28 deaths due to radiation sickness, up to 6,000 cases of cancer and 115,000 forced evacuations from the town of Pripyat and other localities near the plant.

The arch weighs 5,300 tonnes and was raised by 40 hydraulic rams fixed on specially constructed towers 45m high. Once completed, the structure will be slid into place via a system of rails. The reactor itself will then be dismantled and the radioactive material disposed of. 

Vince Novak, director of the Nuclear Safety Department of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), called the completion of the first stage a major milestone. “I’m personally very impressed with the progress achieved in the assembly of the new confinement,” he said.

The arch now under construction is one of two segments that will eventually form the shelter, and so far it has been raised to a height of 22 metres. More structural elements have to be added before it reaches its full height of 108 metres.

The EBRD acts as administrator of the Chernobyl Shelter Fund, which was established in December 1997 by the G7 and other contributing countries to help Ukraine transform the existing Chernobyl sarcophagus into a safe and environmentally stable system.

The completed shelter will be moved over the reactor building by the end of 2015, also covering the concrete sarcophagus hastily built over the reactor building after the 1986 explosion.

One particular concern is dismantling the plant's chimney, which must be taken down before the shelter is put in place. The chimney is lined with radioactive residue that could break up and enter the atmosphere as it is taken apart. 

“This project is unique,” said Nicolas Caille from French designers Novarka, “an arch like this has never been constructed. The design is very complex - more than two million hours of work have gone into it. Making it was a challenge but putting it in place has been easier.”

Even when the shelter is in place, the area around the reactor building will still remain hazardous. The shelter is aimed only at blocking radioactive material from escaping when the reactor is being dismantled; it will not block radiation itself. But when the dismantling and cleanup work is complete, the radiation danger will decline. 

Dr Carlo Mancini, the chairman of the International Advisory Group, the scientific supervisor of the NSC project, says a nuclear waste site for safely stocking thousands of tonnes of the radioactive debris from Chernobyl has yet to be constructed.


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