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Escalating Ukraine conflict could impact Chernobyl’s radiation shield

    Reactors of the Chernobyl atomic plant as seen from the top of the 16 story residential apartment building facing the central square of Pripyat. Photo Credit: Pedro Moura Pinheiro (cc)

An escalating conflict between Ukraine and Russia could impact the construction of Chernobyl’s radiation shield. The gigantic $2 billion containment shield – one of the largest moveable structures ever constructed – is designed to keep the still highly unstable nuclear power plant safe from radiation leaks for approximately 100 years. The containment shield was planned to be placed above the leaking reactor by the end of next year. But the economic crisis in Ukraine, following the revolution and the ongoing conflict with Russia, could delay the construction with up to two years.

The project is “ecologically vital to the region and should go on regardless of what is currently happening,” said Roksolana Stojko-Lozynskyj, of the Ukrainian Congress Committee. “It’s not only a matter of safety for Ukraine but for Europe as a whole.”

The European Union has pledged to cover €250 million of the cost for the Safe Confinement project with the US pledging €182 million, Germany €60 million, the UK €53 million, Russia €15 million and Ireland €8 million.

“In our financial analysis we are of course making the working assumption that [the Safe Confinement project] will not receive any money from Ukraine in the near term,” Vince Novak, director of nuclear safety at the EBRD said in a recent interview with Nuclear Engineering magazine.

Ukraine was expected to contribute €45 million towards the cost of building the gigantic concrete sarcophagus over the reactor. But Ukraine is currently broke and in the middle of a conflict which could, in the worst case scenario, trigger a war with Russia.

Work on the containment shield was halted earlier this month. But the new containment shield is becoming increasingly crucial as the old sarcophagus, which was hastily put in place after the nuclear accident in 1986, is deteriorating rapidly. Just last winter parts of the concrete coating on the old shield collapsed. So the containment new shield is essential to keep the region safe from further radiation leaks.

“What can never be forgotten is that the destruction caused by the deadly explosion at Reactor No 4 at Chernobyl was triggered by the release of just 3% of the radioactive material in the plant; the remaining 97% of this enormous ‘ticking timebomb’ of highly unstable nuclear material is still inside the crumbling Chernobyl complex,” said Adi Roche, CEO of the humanitarian aid agency Chernobyl Children International.

Roche’s organization has already been forced to suspend its life-saving cardiac surgery programme located in Kharkiv in the east of Ukraine due to the ongoing conflict. It’s estimated that around 6000 children are born with genetic heart diseases and defects in Ukraine each year. Medical experts there say these conditions are linked to radiation leaks from the Chernobyl nuclear plant accident.

“Because the situation in Kharkiv is so tense and volatile we felt we had no option but to cancel the operations which the children and their parents had been hoping for”, said Adi Roche. “This is very tragic because there are long waiting lists for these vital life-saving operations”.

The work on the containment shield resumed just a couple of days ago. But the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) describe the current timeline, with a deadline in 2015, as “ambitious.” And if the current conflict in Ukraine worsens, the new containment shield could be further delayed.

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