A New Sarcophagus for the Undead

It's a word that has come to symbolize the risks of nuclear power: "Chernobyl." On April 26, 1986 workers at the V.I. Lenin power plant (some 25 kilometers from a city named Chernobyl in north-central Ukraine) began conducting a safety test on the number 4 unit. Such tests were not uncommon-- the power plant was an RBMK reactor with a "positive void co-efficient of reactivity," which meant that if the reactor gets too hot and some water turns to steam, the rate of the core's nuclear reaction increases (most of the world's nuclear power plants did not and do not use this design). This night, it is speculated that the testing crew did not coordinate their efforts with the plant's operating crew as they began to reduce the supplies of cooling water, which allowed the reactor's core temperature to increase. Suddenly, the very design of the reactor began to destroy it. At 1:21 A.M., Unit 4 reached some 150 times its normal power level as water turned to high-pressure steam, which then blew the reactor apart. Within seconds, thirty times the radioactivity of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been released into the environment.

The world first learned of history's worst nuclear accident from Sweden, where higher than normal radiation levels were recorded at one of its nuclear plants. News came from the USSR that thirty-one plant workers and firefighters were dead from radiation sickness, and some 115,000 people in a 30 square kilometer area around the crippled reactor were evacuated. An ill-fated northwest wind carried the radioactive plume from the explosion (consisting of radioactive gases, aerosols, and finely fragmented fuel) over the European part of the Soviet Union, to Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Great Britain. Direct and indirect effects continue to this day, and in this chapter you will learn more about them.

Less well known is that the 300,000-ton concrete and steel structure built to contain the destroyed reactor has begun to break down; the roof has cracked, letting in some 3,000 cubic meters of water, and countless animals, birds, and insects. If the structure, known as the "Sarcophagus," were to collapse, several tons of radioactive dust could escape. In June 1997, several nations approved a Shelter Implementation Plan to build a permanent sarcophagus, and a July 2000 meeting of 37 nations continued the fundraising for it. Work is due to be completed in 2005, and robotic units are being developed to monitor radiation inside the new structure as it is built.

The lost power from the closing of all parts of the Chernobyl plant (the last unit closed in 2000) may be made up by two new nuclear power plants that are planned at other locations. A new Chernobyl Center will study the effects of radiation on humans and the environment, and the site itself is to be turned into a green field surrounding the new sarcophagus.

References:

Environmental News Network. 2000. "Donors pledge fresh millions to Chernobyl," http://www.enn.com/news/wire-stories/2000/07/07052000/reu_chernobyl_14452.asp

LaMotte, John Larry.1996. "Chernobyl:Legacy of a Meltdown," CNN Interactive World News, http://www-cgi.cnn.com/WORLD/9604/04/cnnp_chernobyl/index.html

Nuclear Energy Agency. http://www.nea.fr/html/rp/chernobyl/c07.html

United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission. 2000. "The Accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant," Fact Sheet, U.S.N.R.C. December. http://www.nrc.gov/OPA/gmo/tip/fschernobyl.html