Foreign Policy Blogs

Chernobyl's Silver Anniversary – No End in Sight

It was 25 years ago today that the Number 4 reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic exploded. The first the world learned of it was the following day when radiation detectors in Sweden went berserk. The heroics of the “liquidators,” many of whom died from radiation sickness in a matter of weeks, probably kept the disaster from being even worse than it was. The key to containing the radioactive material was a cement sarcophagus built over the damaged reactor. It is nearing the end of its planned lifespan. The truth is, it needs to be replaced, and the replacement will need replacing and so on for centuries.

This morning, Pravda reports that “the sarcophagus has been falling to pieces slowly but surely during the recent years.” It estimates that the replacement needs to be erected in the next 5 years. “The Ukrainian authorities intend to turn the Chernobyl station into the secure area with the help of a special construction known as ‘Shelter.’ The latter is going to be an arch-like construction 105 meters high, 150 meters long and 260 meters wide. When the construction of the new object is finished, it will be moved over above the fourth power-generating block of the station, which is currently covered with the sarcophagus.”

They need 740 million euros to build it, and they have arranged financing of just 550 million. No doubt the money will be forthcoming, and the Shelter will be in place by the 2015 target date.

However, there is still a window of danger. Eben Harrell and James Marson wrote on Time magazine’s website today, “The sarcophagus, which contains the molten core, is starting to crumble and could collapse, which could release another radioactive cloud into the air.” The region is at risk until the Shelter is in place.

Reporting from the area, they asked how long it would be before the reactor site would again be inhabitable. Ihor Gramotkin, director of the Chernobyl power plant, told them “at least 20,000 years.”

While building technology has advanced by leaps and bounds in the last few centuries, the 20,000 year horizon puts these efforts into perspective. Very few buildings last 1,000 years. Even if the Shelter survives that long, there will still be 19,000 more years to go.

Next month, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will offer tighter safety regulations for consideration at the G-8 summit. “The proposals will concern the responsibility of the countries using nuclear power, including the timely measures in case of emergency,” he said. The trouble is going to be the very unpredictability of those emergencies. If the problem can be anticipated, nuclear engineers usually build in safeguards.

For those interested in a blow-by-blow account of the Chernobyl affair, Grigory Medvedev (no relation to the Russian president) was deputy chief engineer at the Number 1 reactor at Chernobyl. His book, The Truth About Chernobyl, came out in 1991, and no one has written a better piece.



Jeff Myhre

Jeff Myhre is a graduate of the University of Colorado where he double majored in history and international affairs. He earned his PhD at the London School of Economics in international relations, and his dissertation was published by Westview Press under the title The Antarctic Treaty System: Politics, Law and Diplomacy. He is the founder of The Kensington Review, an online journal of commentary launched in 2002 which discusses politics, economics and social developments. He has written on European politics, international finance, and energy and resource issues in numerous publications and for such private entities as Lloyd's of London Press and Moody's Investors Service. He is a member of both the Foreign Policy Association and the World Policy Institute.