/ 16 January 2017

Chernobyl – from nuclear ground zero to solar park

Chernobyl's New Safe Confinement covering the destroyed 4th block of Chernobyl Nuclear power plant during the inauguration ceremony.
Chernobyl's New Safe Confinement covering the destroyed 4th block of Chernobyl Nuclear power plant during the inauguration ceremony.

Chernobyl is synonymous with the failings of nuclear technology. But the 1986 accident started out due to human error. A late-night stress test on the power plant – where the safety systems were turned off – was not done by the book.

That put pressure on the plant’s Number 4 reactor and exposed flaws in its design and construction. A buildup of pressure triggered explosions and fires that could not be contained. The reactor leaked radiated material into the atmosphere for eight months before a large cement shield – dubbed the sarcophagus – was built over the reactor.

That allowed Chernobyl’s other reactors to continue working; Number 3 kept producing electricity until the year 2000. Reactors 1, 2 and 3 entered their decommissioning phase in 2015. Some of Chernobyl’s sister plants – built using the same technology – worked until 2013 before also being decommissioned.

But the incident at that station, now in Ukraine, has made Chernobyl an icon for the anti-nuclear movement. Chernobyl was the single worst nuclear power plant accident in history, until a similar problem at the Fukushima plant in Japan also resulted in the release of radiated material.

Together, the two dominate any discussion around an energy mix that might contain nuclear. Three decades on, Chernobyl in particular has become a symbol for groups that oppose Eskom’s plans to build 9 600-megawatts of nuclear capacity.

That narrative is, however, set to change. Chinese developers are planning to build 1 000-megawatts of solar capacity to the south of Chernobyl, thanks to the sheer amount of space left in the exclusion zone established around the reactor. The plant will cover 2 500-hectares.

Solar panels will come from Golden Concord Holdings, one of the biggest players in China’s renewable energy sector. Its chairperson said in a press release: “There will be remarkable social benefits and economic ones as we try to renovate the once-damaged area with green and renewable energy.”

The plant will be built and operated by the state-owned China National Machinery Corporation.

In its own press release, the Ukrainian government has said the project will bring R14-billion worth of investment over the next two years. Construction will start later this year, it said.

That a plant can be built in the exclusion zone – where locals are only allowed back to the abandoned town of Pripyat twice a year for fear of exposure – is down to a new sarcophagus that has been built over the Number 4 reactor. Learning from the weakness of the original cover, this mobile sarcophagus was built using 36 000-tons of steel. That makes it the heaviest mobile building in the world.

Standing at 108m, it has two cranes inside to help remove the 150-tons of nuclear fuel still left at the site.

With radiation now trapped inside a structure that will finally remove the problem, and a massive solar park, Chernobyl could become a positive symbol for the transition in energy towards renewable sources.