Chernobyl – The Sarcophagus 30 years later

Almost three years ago, I rode across Ukraine on my motorbike. A lot has changed since. I travelled through the Donbass region, spent two nights in Luhansk and crossed the border into Russia. This would be unthinkable today, the region has been ravaged by war and the border with Russia is sealed. I do not know when I will be able to visit the area again – soon, I hope, but might still be some time. Far from this conflict zone, to the north of the country, lurks another enemy that will take much, much longer to defeat.

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This week marks the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The night of 26th April, 1986, a fatal combination of human error and design faults led to the worst nuclear catastrophe in history. The story of the exact events that caused the explosion, despite being rather technical, has been told many times. The disintegration of the USSR and the difficulties in doing accurate research meant that less is known about the long term effects that the radioactive fallout had – whole areas rendered uninhabitable, displaced population, contaminated crops and water sources, an increase in several types of cancer, particularly thyroid, genetic disorders… in one way or another, the disaster directly affected the lives of at least 300,000 people.

Unfortunately, as is often the case with disasters that seem to be far from us, the world has long turned its regard away from Chernobyl. The area was put under military control, the remains of the reactor were sealed and we forgot about it.

But the danger is far from over. There are still 16 tonnes of uranium and plutonium inside the reactor, among many other radioactive materials. One milligram is enough to be lethal to a person. You do the math.

In the immediate aftermath of the accident, once the fire in the core had been put under control the main priority was to seal off the remains of the reactor to prevent the spread of radioactive dust and smoke into the atmosphere – remember that the extent of the catastrophe only became clear when the radioactive cloud reached Sweden and set off the alarms of a nuclear power plant there – but it was impossible to work near the building as radiation levels were high enough to kill a person in a matter of minutes and leave lethal long-term effects in a matter of seconds.

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Building a structure to seal a building that was not only enormous, but partially destroyed and surrounded by debris without approaching it more than it was strictly necessary was not an easy task. The area around it needed to be cleared to lay off the foundations to the structure, ways of putting the structure into place without endangering the lives or workers needed to be found, and everything needed to happen as soon as possible.

Remote controlled bulldozers were used to clear the surrounding area. The debris and the first layer of soil were dug up and buried in deep trenches that were immediately covered in concrete. Most of the structure for the sarcophagus was built on remote sites and then transported and moved into position using enormous remote controlled cranes. The display of ingenuity and technology was staggering.

Even so, building such structure remotely still posed high challenges. The roof structure rests not on newly built pillars or walls, but on remains of the ventilation shafts of the reactor, which were damaged in the explosion. The 2000-tonne slab of concrete that covered the reactor fell into an unstable, almost vertical position; if it moved, it would stir up highly contaminated dust or damage the structure around it. The welding and riveting of the sarcophagus had to be done remotely, so they were not as accurate as it would be desirable, and on top of it all the whole structure has been suffering the effects of the harsh climate ever since.

It was designed to last for thirty years and it was supposed to keep radiation levels low enough to allow work in the construction of a better, more permanent structure. However, the disintegration of the USSR meant that the problem was now in Ukraine territory, and neither Ukraine nor Russia had the money to undertake such operation.

10 years after construction ended, the structure showed cracks and gaping holes, and water was pouring in and leaking to subsoil. Radiation levels inside the sarcophagus were still very high and it was concluded that it would not be possible to repair it from the inside.

As soon as 1992, the Ukranian government held an international competition for a design proposal of a structure to replace the existing one, but it was not until 2004 that the design was completed. The start of actual construction work on the site would have to wait another six years, until 2010. In 2006, the Designed Stabilisation Steel Structure, which had been built next to the western wall to relieve some of the roof’s weight off the damaged concrete wall on which it rests, was extended to support up to 50% of the load. This was said to make the structure stable for another 15 years, but other parts of the sarcophagus were still unstable – in February 2013 part of the roof of the turbine hall collapsed, and workers had to be evacuated. The collapse was later attributed to poor quality repair work and deterioration of the structure.

I visited the site in July that same year, and progress in the construction of the new sarcophagus, called New Safe Confinement, was well underway, even though the project had been originally announced to be completed by 2005. The NSC is designed as an enormous arch that will cover the old sarcophagus completely. It is more than 100 metres tall, 150 meters long and has an inner span of 245 meters. It contains two cranes and all the necessary equipment not only to seal the old reactor, but to start dismantling it and removing the remaining fuel inside. Once complete, it will slide on two rails into its position over the old sarcophagus

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A 180 meters to the east of the construction site of the NSC, the old structure stood much taller than the photographs I had seen might lead to believe. We were only allowed there for a few minutes, but it was enough to appreciate how badly needed a new sarcophagus is.

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As I write these lines, construction of the NSC has been completed. All that remains now is for it to be moved into position and permanently sealed, 30 years after the catastrophe.

Here are some links to interesting material:

The Sarcophagus on The Charnobyl Gallery – A photography website of Chernobyl and Prypyat

Documentary on the disaster and the aftermath

BBC documentary Inside Chernobyl’s Sarcophagus

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Day 13 – Sunday 7th of July – Luhansk (0km)

For an airplane geek like me, today was absolute heaven. The place we went to was apparently one of the three best military pilot schools in the old USSR, and the enourmous complex where it was located, on the outskirts of Luhansk, is today partly abandoned, partly inhabited by locals, partly used by the army, partly an air museum. The bus dropped at the main entrance, where an old soviet reactor stood proud to remind people of what the place had been in other times.

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We went through the gate and I noticed that what must have been the entrance checkpoint had been turned into small shops and kiosks. The blocks of flats that flanked the main avenue were today inhabited by local people who had bought them cheap because they had been built long ago. Further into the complex, the trees and vegetation had grown wilder and from time to time I caught a glimpse of old buildings and warehouses that were part of the pilot school.

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We were soon walking through overgrowth and half collapsed buildings, and it seemed rather strange that there was a museum somewhere in there, but you need to take into account that Ukraine has not developed a tourist infrastructure in most places. After a while we had got lost, and there was no one to ask. In the end we found some kind of old car park near another block of apartments and Anna asked a guy who was coming out the way to the museum. He sent us along a narrow footpath across a small forest that then turned into fields and we kept walking until I realized that we were on the schools runway. Far to our right we could see the tails of the planes in the museum. I asked Anna what use people made of the runway today, and she told me that a lot of people took their kids there with the family car to teach them how to drive, and there was also people who raced but that from time to time small private planes landed there. I was quite shocked that people were allowed to enter a runway that was sometimes active, and I asked her whether there was some kind of ATC or authority responsible for the place, but she didn’t know. I took a couple of pictures – it is not often that you can simply walk into an active runway – and went to the museum.

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We had apparently come to the back door, and there was an old guy that took a lot of convincing to let us in through that gate. After assuring him that we were going to go straight to the main entrance and pay, he let us in. Anna asked him about the runway, and he said that they were responsible for the museum, and the military for the radio station next to it, if somebody decided to land their plane on the old runway, it was their responsibility to make sure they didn’t land on anybody. What a crazy country!

Once into the museum, I had a wonderful time despite the tremendous heat. There were lots of planes I loved, like an Ilyushin Il-76, a Tupolev Tu-95, a Mig 29, a Sukhoi Su-27, a Beriev Be-12 and many others. The guy from the back gate came back, apparently having decided to make up for his earlier reception, and gave us a thorough explanation of the planes and helicopters there, although it was in Russian… Anna did her best to translate it for me.

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We came back to the flat to get some food and a badly needed shower, and I finally found a moment to write for the blog. In the evening we went back to the center to see the sunset from a park that overlooked the old part of the city. It was a wonderful last view of Luhansk.

Tomorrow I’ll cross into Russia, and I am already nervous again about having to face the fearsome old soviet bureaucracy.

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Day 12 – Saturday 6th of July – Rus’ka Lozova to Luhansk (362km)

Well, another day that was supposed to be short and rather uneventful has turned out to be great. I left Rus’ka Lozova early to try and have some time to visit Luhansk, as Anna, my host, had told me that there were tours of the old industrial parks of the city and I really fancied seeing that.

I got to the city quite early and as I was riding in the outskirts, I overtook an MC convoy. They were the first proper motorbikes I had seen in the country, and I was quite surprised to see them. When I stopped at the first traffic lights before entering the city, one of them, who apparently had left the other behind to catch up with me, pulled alongside and asked me where I was coming from. I started to tell him about the trip, but the lights changed and we rode on. Shortly after the rest of them appeared and they made gestures for me to stop by the roadside. Vladimir, their president, spoke English, and they were very interested to see where I was coming from. They told me they had been to a biking event about 100km from the city and asked where I was staying. I showed them the small notebook where I had written the address and phone number of my host, and then the president took out his mobile phone, gave it to one of the club members and told him to call her. They spoke in Russian and then he introduced me to one of his guys, the “Veterinar” , and told me to follow him, because he would show me the way to the center and take me to a place where I could meet Anna.

So I rode into the city escorted by the local MC, and once in the center, most of them went their separate ways back home. My guide and another guy, with their respective old ladies, took me to the center, and in about 20 minutes Anna was there. The bikers wished me good luck with the rest of my trip and went home, and I told my host that I needed to drop all my stuff and park the bike securely before visiting the city. It turned out that she lived almost 8km from there, and if she took the bus, she would get to her place later than me on the bike, so this being Ukraine, I sat her on top of the bag and the spare tires and rode through the center like that, no helmet.

Once we had parked the bike and I had a chance to have a shower, she took me to visit an important train factory in the city. It is not normally possible to visit, but they were celebrating the city’s industrial day, and a lot of places like that were open to the public. Not an opportunity to miss. The visit was great, we were taken around an enormous soviet-style factory in the late afternoon, the red sun shinning through the warehouses tall windows and making for some very good pictures.

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After that we went to eat something and then to a bar that served the local beer, which was excellent. It got late, and after such a long I was absolutely exhausted. The prospect of getting up at about 6 in the morning to ride to the border, deal with the crossing into Russia and then ride 400km more to Volgograd looked like the least appealing thing on Earth. On top of that, there was a museum that I really wanted to visit, an old military pilot school that had been turned into an air museum and had a collection of Soviet planes, so I decided to stay an extra day in the city.