The site of Chernobyl 30 years after

The unit 4 sarcophagus
In 1986, the Soviet authorities dumped, by helicopters, thousands of tons of materials on the damaged unit No. 4. Then they built in a few months a building called the “sarcophagus” . The sarcophagus contains the bulk of 190 tons of fuel remained in the melted core of the reactor. Built in emergency and fragile, the sarcophagus aim was to reduce the risk of collapse and of further leakage of radioactive material.
© Petr Pavlicek / IAEA

On December 15th 2000, the Ukrainian government, in accordance with a commitment made in 1995, has definitely closed the twin reactor still operating on the site. This event marked the end of the operation of RBMK reactors in Ukraine. There were, at that time, 13 reactors of this type still operating over two sites in Russia and Lithuania.

After the final shutdown of the last reactor, significant amounts of radioactive material remained on the site. A decommissioning plan has been defined and continue to be implemented thanks to financial support from the international community.

The exclusion zone: an abandoned area
The Chernobyl exclusion zone – more than 2 600 square kilometers around the destroyed reactor -has returned in 20 years in the wild. This pack of dogs is feeding on the remains they receive from the workers responsible for cleaning the area and people who live there. Wild animals such as boars, deer thrive there. In the absence of humans, the exclusion zone took ironically the appearance of a natural park.
© Photograph by Gerd Ludwig / NGM

The Ukrainian authorities declared a dead zone of 29 km radius (half of a French department) with its trail of ghost towns and the appearance of desolation inherent in ruin and abandoned relics. The best known is Pripyat, located about two kilometers from the disaster, emptied of its 50 000 inhabitants in the urgency of the catastrophe.

A decontamination effort has made the reactors site safe enough to access for workers and visitors. Most decontaminated areas have been cleaned with bulldozers that have removed a thickness of more than 1 meter of contaminated soil.

Pripyat: an abanfoned city
Debris and pieces of plaster are all that remains of the polyclinic of the city of Pripyat located at 3 kilometers from Chernobyl. The buildings were left intact, but time passed and marauders having looted furniture and equipment, have taken their toll..
© Petr Pavlicek / IAEA

Since 1986, the risk of radiation in affected areas has been mitigated by the natural evolution and the measures taken. The majority of the contaminated territories are now sufficiently decontaminated to live and conduct economical activities. However, in the exclusion zone and a limited number of places, restrictions on the use of land will persist much longer.

Concerning the “sarcophagus” built in six months in 1986, under difficult conditions, to contain the remains of the damaged reactor, it is impossible to make an accurate diagnosis of its solidity in the medium and long term. There is a risk of collapse, which would result in an emission of radioactive dust into the surrounding environment, leading to exposure of staff present on the site.

Should such a collapse occur, it would not be a “second Chernobyl” as it is sometimes wrongly said. There would be no fire nor explosion. The dust from the collapse would fall in the immediate vicinity. This would be far less radioactive matter than in 1986 because of the complete disappearance, almost thirty twenty years after, of volatile and short-lived radioelements, such as iodine-131, which were so harmful the weeks after the reactor explosion.

A project is underway to strengthen the sarcophagus and to reduce the long term hazards it presents . The first measures to stabilize the structure and renovate its monitoring were undertaken in 1998 as part of a plan for 8 years. Funding of the program for 700 million euros, was provided by Ukraine and an international fund.

The spent fuel of the three stopped reactors are currently stored in pools adjacent to these reactors. A fuel reprocessing, which would allow a waste conditioning, is not planned. It is planned to build a ”dry” interim storage facility, according to the method used for waste of pressurized and boiling water reactors.

Nuclear tourists in Prypiat
The Prypiat recreational park should have opened onMay 1st 1986, but the plant exploded five days before. Now, it offers to tourists an attraction of a new type.
© Gerd Ludwig : National Geographic Magazin

What can be learned 30 years after the accident? Is a second Chernobyl possible? Ons shoulld remember that the accident would not have occurred if the operators had not disabled safety devices. In 2016, the probability of major accidents have become extremely low, but Safety Authorities do not exclude them completely. The nuclear major players prefer to focus on the obligation to dramatically reduce the consequences. They should avoid at all costs major releases of radioactivity and the trauma of having to relocate entire populations.

Chernobyl shield : In april 2015, a forest fire broke out near the Chernobyl nuclear plant. Reporting on this event, the BBC published this spectacular video about the protective shield that will cover the damaged reactor, its sarcophagus in order to dismantle it. The video explains how the protective shield works and how it will be moved into place.

The set up of the great arch began in November 2016. The arch was expected to be fully operational by December 2017.

Chernobyl arch slides into place.

In 2022, at the beginning of the ukrinian war, the Chernobyl site was briefly occupied by the russian army. There was no more reactors in activity. No visits are presently allowed to the public.

Chernobyl survivors assess fact and fiction in TV series – BBC Ukrainian, june 2019