The Chernobyl nuclear plant explosion may have been the worst nuclear accident in history - but scientists warn that an even greater threat is still lingering.
Only a fraction of the nuclear material was expelled by the reactor explosion back in 1986 and massive amounts of lethally contaminated debris remain buried at the site.
A quarter of a century on since the Chernobyl fallout, a special confinement structure – called the sarcophagus – is still preventing more radioactive emissions into the atmosphere. The sarcophagus was built in 1986, just months after the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
Back then, experts predicted that the sarcophagus would last for twenty years – until 2006, but it was strengthened and improved, extending its lifetime for 5 more years. The biggest question is – and still remains unanswered – how much nuclear fuel remains under the sarcophagus.
Some experts believe that there is none, as most of it vaporized into the atmosphere and was spread around the Chernobyl exclusion zone. But other experts have said that 95 percent of it remains under the sarcophagus – and that could be tons and tons of nuclear material. So, in case the sarcophagus falls down and the site cracks open again, consequences could be gravely serious for Ukraine and the rest of Eastern Europe.
“We believe that nuclear fuel under the sarcophagus is no longer a solid mass, like 24 years ago,” said Vladimir Yavorivskiy, a Rada deputy from Kiev. “Rather, now it is more like three layers of dispersed dust. So should the present sarcophagus collapse, we could see a very powerful explosion at the facility – as powerful as a nuclear one.”
In order to avoid another catastrophe, Europe invested in the building of a new confinement structure. In 2007, the French company Navarka was allowed to start the construction of an arch-like steel structure to cover the facility. Three years later, the project is underway with more than 500 engineers building the new sarcophagus next to the contaminated plant.
“It won’t be just a frame, it will be like a technological complex,” explained Yulia Marusich, Chernobyl NPP employee. “Multi-functional cranes will be installed inside this structure. It won’t be a final step. The new confinement will provide us with a safer environment for work inside.”
The project’s initial cost was thought to be half a billion euro. Now – sources in Chernobyl report – that figure has almost doubled. But in the fight for the continent’s safety, no sum is too much.
The new confinement is expected to be completed by the year 2013 and is designed to last for another 100 years. The only question – what the fate of the Chernobyl NPP will be. As long as the station is no longer operational, some say that it might be dismantled under this new dome. But that is only speculation for now because others say that this process may take another 70 years, and that there are no technologies, to date, which would allow this dismantling to happen.