Saturday, December 7, 2013
Sergei Blagov and Andrei Ivanov
- The problems of Chernobyl, the 1986 scene of the world’s worst nuclear accident to date, did not end when engineers sealed up the shattered hulk of the plant’s Reactor IV in a giant concrete and steel ‘sarcophagus’ casing.
The Ukrainian government is seeking millions for a second sarcophagus to surround the existing one, already fragmenting; there is a real danger of a new nuclear chain reaction inside the entombed hulk; and thousands of former plant workers are suffering from potentially fatal medical problems.
Thousands of Russians and Ukrainians have already died of medical conditions attributed to the 1986 explosion and fire at Reactor IV at Chernobyl. In what was the world’s worst nuclear disaster, the blasts threw a plume of radioactive debris across Europe, contaminating large parts of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.
The men and women who brought the fire under control and worked to throw the sarcophagus around Reactor IV’s shattered hulk may have sacrificed their lives. Of the orginal team of around 4,000, only a thousand are still alive, some them disabled.
Yet the first sarcophagus, built with 400,000 cubic meters of concrete and 7,000 tonnes of steel, has already begun to break up and plant officials warn that its collapse could release tonnes of radioactive dust into the air.
At the time the sarcophagus builders were forced, through lack of time and money, to use part of the reactor building wall that survived the blast, as part of the casing structure. Now experts believe that this wall runs a ten percent risk of collapse.
Scientists from a joint project between the Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences, and Carnegie Mellon University and RedZone Robotics of the United States, is sending mobile robots into the sarcophagus to check damage.
Of the 200 tonnes of nuclear fuel in ill-fated Reactor IV on the day of the blast, only 10 tonnes was released into the air, and the rest is still entombed in the hulk.
That means there is still a chance of some unforseen nuclear reaction being triggered in the sealed up wreckage, says Russian nuclear expert Alexander Borovoy. While there is no chance of an explosion, he says, the dangers of irradiation would increase.
Last month the Group of Seven most industrialised nations and Russia pledged 300 million dollars toward a second sarcophagus to enclose the first and the hulk itself. Ukraine is expected to contribute 50 million.
But the negotiations have been complicated by Ukraine’s demand for 1.2 billion dollars in total to set up alternative power sources and close Chernobyl, and for social funds to soften the blow to Chernobyl workers put out of work.
“Without the money, we will not close Chernobyl,” Ukraine’s security chief Volodymyr Gorbulin said, and, good as his word, the Chernobyl plant’s last functional reactor, Reactor III, was restarted as the Group of Seven leaders convened in England last week.
Last September the World Association of Nuclear Operators raised alarm bells with a report saying Chernobyl’s Reactor III is in “very bad condition” and the most dangerous of 50 reactors it inspected.
Reactor III was shut down last year to repair cracks in its cooling system’s pipes. It is the only one of four reactors at the plant that can still function. One was destroyed in the 1986 explosion, another was seriously damaged in a 1991 fire and the other has reached the end of its operating life.
Plant managers and the residents of the town of Slavutich, populated by plant workers and their families, say closure will put 7,500 workers out of work and leave Ukraine starved of electricity.
Meanwhile an estimated 40,000 people who worked at Chernobyl or nearby at the time of the blast, continue to live with disability or serious illness, says Vyacheslav Grishin, chairman of the Chernobyl Union Fund.
Grishin says the Soviet authorities deliberatly misled the sarcophagus workers on the true levels of radiation around the shattered reactor. Many died as a result.
Nelly Meckikh, a senior expert at the Russian health ministry estiamtes that one third of them are already disabled, and the level of cancer deaths among them is roughly five times normal, she added.
More than three million Russians were living on the 56,000 square kilometers of Russian territory direct contaminated by the fallout. Nearly 1.16 percent of the Russian federal budget goes on works tackling the consequences of Chernobyl: the government plans to disburse some 1.75 billion roubles (about 300 million dollars) during 1998-2000 to protect the country population.
However, Moscow’s perennial cash flow problems has left the Chernobyl programmes owed nearly a billion roubles. Three planned federal programmes, due to finish this year, have been extended until 2000 because of lack of funds to finishe them, says Nadezhda Guerasimova, director of the Russian ministry of emergency’s medical department.
Some 33,700 Chernobyl veterans are eligible for free housing, but only 6,000 have actually recioeved the keys in the last ten years, she adds. Many suffer for psychological problems linked to the trauma of enduring and surviving the accident.
In Ukraine, in contrast, the parliament plans to wind up a parlaimentary committee overseeing the post-disaster follow up work. Deputy Volodymyr Yatsenko, former chairman of the committee told the daily Vechirniy Kiev last week that its abolition will make it harder for Chernobyl sufferers to get help.
Plans are also afoot for 60 percent cuts in Chernobyl fund- raising programmes and their total abolition by December 1998, says Yatsenko.
“At present, the Chernobyl programmes receive only one-third of what is needed, while the recent decision can be regarded as the state’s withdrawal from projects to help Chernobyl victims,” he told the daily.
“Abolition… is premature as many issues connected with the protection of those who suffered as a result of the disaster have yet to be addressed.”