They intended to stop unit four of the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant in April 1986 for the planned repairs, but they could not make it: on the night of April 25-26, during the testing of one of the security systems, it exploded. Despite the terrible danger, people rushed to fight real hell – only in the premises of the power unit, 190 tons of nuclear fuel dispersed due to the explosion. The fire, which immediately took the life of 21 liquidators, had lasted for 9 days.
As a result of radiation, thousands of people died. The radiation taken by the northwest wind quickly spread throughout a huge area, covering pieces of Ukraine, Belarus, and the Russian Federation. Albeit not so heavily, other countries also became irradiated. And 4 thousand square kilometers around Prypiat had later become a Zone of Alienation. All these years Ukrainians, together with the international community, have been trying to turn it into a safe area for human beings. However, no one dares to predict how long this black mark will rest on the body of Ukraine.
They want to decommission the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant in 10 years
Today the exclusion zone is a series of objects, the most important of which is the sarcophagus that is hidden under the arch. The first one is the black heart of the Chornobyl zone. It is officially named the “Shelter” object, the second one is new safe confinement. However, as people used to name them “sarcophagus” and “arch” before so they name them the same way now. It’s more convenient, more familiar and more understandable. To all objects through the exclusion zone lead very good asphalt roads (experts hint that it is because of the cargo that is transported there for research), the greens grow wildly and among it, the wild animals feel extremely free. Here you can meet wolves and deer, beavers and foxes, wild boars and elks, hares and goats, bats from the red bok and even unique for our country brown bears.
This year at the beginning of April, specialists of the State Agency on the Exclusion Zone Management (SAEZM), together with colleagues from profile institutions completed the development of the concept of a new Program for Decommissioning of the Chornobyl Power Plant, designed for 2021-2031. It is planned to submit it for the Government’s consideration by the end of the year. It is about transforming the “Shelter” object into an environmentally safe system. As Oleh Nasvit, the first deputy head of the SAEZM recalls, last year the Verkhovna Rada adopted a “law that defines the main tasks and measures aimed at decommissioning the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant, as well as its budgetary funding till 2020. However, this process, as well as the transformation of the “Shelter” object into an environmentally safe system, will last for at least several decades.”
At the same time, the SAEZM recognizes: it is unlikely that the “Shelter” object will become completely environmentally safe in the broadest sense, at least in the next few centuries. The reason – the radionuclides, which contaminated this territory, will live for centuries. The duration of the very process of fuel and radioactive waste removal from the “Shelter” object, as it was reported to Opinion in the press service of the agency, is estimated at 40-50 years, approximately until 2065. “The most important prerequisite for the beginning of work on the removal of fuel-containing materials is as rapid as possible construction of the necessary infrastructure and reliable storage facilities for their depositing and subsequent disposal.” If you translate this into understandable language – if the geological repository for radioactive waste is built on the territory of Ukraine within these 50 years, all terms will be respected. However, the question of where to build it is still debatable.
How much it costs, nobody knows, but it is very expensive
No less important aspect of solving the problem is the funding of these works. Neither scientists nor specialists of the station itself, nor the staff of the SAEZM, can say for sure how much money is needed to dismantle the sarcophagus, take away all dangerous substances from there, and bury somewhere in the bowels of the Earth. “Given the huge amount of radioactive waste that is located in the ‘Shelter’,” the press service of the SAEZM explained to our media, “the need to create new technologies for the removal and handling of fuel-containing materials (FCM), the construction of the necessary infrastructure and reliable storage facilities for the reception of FCM, in particular, geological repository facilities, all of it will require huge financial resources.” How much – nobody knows yet. It is said that Ukraine will not be able to cope with it on its own, therefore, we will have to appeal to the international community for help once again.
A half step closer to normal life
Scientists who are concerned with the safety issues of the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant and the exclusion zone believe that its radius can already be reduced. The public treats such an idea with some fear. And while this issue remains controversial, the experts of the State Agency on the Exclusion Zone Management slowly, step by step, move towards the return of these territories to normal life. Their so-called zone of responsibility is also the assistance to self-settlers, there are only a little more than 120 people left (last year their number was reduced by nine). As well as the maintenance of created in 2016 Chornobyl Radiation and Ecological Biosphere Reserve that covers nearly 230 thousand hectares, which are divided into several functional zones: protected, buffer, regulated reserve regime, and anthropogenic landscapes.
To be precise, now 55% of alienation and forced relocation zone is covered with forests, 10% – by meadows, 5% of its territory is occupied by marshes. The remaining 30% is set-aside agricultural lands and former villages. The woodland is inhomogeneous, there are pine (up to 40%), oak-pine (35%), oak and hornbeam-oak, and alder (up to 25%) forests. Over 1250 species of vascular plants, 120 species of lichens and 20 species of moss are growing there. Moreover, three types of plants – Ukrainian hawthorn, Silene lithuanica, and Ukrainian goatsbeard – are included in the European Red List. Another 5 species are listed in Annex 1 of the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats. 43 species – in the Red Book of Ukraine, and 13 plant groups – in our Green Book.
If we mention animals, only on the territory of the reserve, according to various sources, from 58 to 70 species of mammals, 200-300 species of birds, 6-7 species of reptiles, 11-12 – amphibians and up to 60 species of fish live. 14 species are included in Red List of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. The European Red List has 13 species. 75 species of fauna are enlisted in the Red Book of Ukraine.
Constantly there is a secondary contamination
The head of the All-Ukrainian Ecological League Tetyana Tymochko considers that 33 years after the Chornobyl accident the problem of radioactive pollution in the exclusion zone still exists. “Radionuclides that got into the environment as a result of the explosion of the reactor four have a half-life of 29-30 years (this is strontium-90 and strontium-137), plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24 thousand years, and isotopes of some other transuranium elements. Therefore, The Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant will remain a dangerous object for at least another three centuries,” she explains to Opinion.
The expert especially emphasizes that a very dangerous process is going on now. It is secondary radioactive contamination of territories outside the exclusion zone. “Chornobyl’s deforestation, the export of materials from the Power Plant zone, precisely those things contribute to such secondary pollution,” explains the ecologist. “Deforestation causes the exposure of huge forest areas that lose their natural protection. Thus, due to the movement of air masses, dust storms can carry radionuclides over long distances. ”
Expert notes that fires in the surrounding areas also pose a threat. State Emergency Service of Ukraine approves the fact that the fire is quite common there.
Whether to go to Chornobyl for an excursion or not – it’s up to you
As for tours around exclusion zone, which, by the way, are practiced in Belarus too, the Ukrainian Environmental League believes that today’s guided tours to Chornobyl shouldn’t be of entertainment nature because “still, there hasn’t been conducted thorough research, which could determine the level of radioactive contamination in the affected areas and to make sure that the usage of the zones, even with residual radioactive contamination, is safe.”
For Ukrainians who have been struggling to cope with the consequences of technological disaster for the fourth decade, it is important to minimize them as soon as possible. At the same time, environmentalists believe that it is worthwhile to shift to the alternative sources of energy that will eventually replace the nuclear power industry. The first steps in this direction have already been made – at the industrial site of the station over the unit four that was destroyed 33 years ago, solar plant Solar Chernobil, with a capacity of 1 Mwp, has appeared. Does it mean that the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant will gradually turn into a site where only alternative energy will be generated? Only time will show.
By Larysa Vyshynska
Photo by Yulia Kryzhevska