33 years after it was constructed, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant sarcophagus, built to contain the fallout from the 1986 disaster, is being dismantled.
The huge concrete and steel structure was hastily put together following the Chernobyl disaster. It encases the most dangerous area of the nuclear reactor, designed to protect it from climate exposure and limit the radioactive contamination of the surrounding area.
The sarcophagus was constructed around two months after the disaster by 600,000 workers, aiming to reduce the amount of radioactive materials like corium, uranium and plutonium leaking into the atmosphere.
At least 31 people reportedly died of acute radiation sickness during the assembly of the sarcophagus in 1986, with thousands more being exposed to dangerous levels of radiation.
The structure was designed to be rugged and sturdy, using 400,000 cubic metres of concrete and roughly 16 million pounds of steel, as Science Alert reports. However, in the rush to get it finished, workers failed to seal off joints and left openings in the ceiling, which allowed water to seep in and corrode the inside.
Because of this, the damage to the sarcophagus has become so great it must be dismantled before it collapses.
According to SSE Chernobyl NPP, the company which manages the Chernobyl plant, the sarcophagus has a ‘very high’ probability of collapsing, with gravity being the only thing currently keeping the structure on its supporting blocks.
The power plant company has subsequently signed a contract for US$78 million with a construction company, who will now work to dismantle the structure by 2023.
SSE Chernobyl NPP said in a statement:
In order to complete this dismantling task the contractor has simultaneously to disassemble Shelter and to reinforce it as the removal of every element will increase the risk of Shelter collapse that in turn will cause the release of large amounts of radioactive materials inside the inner space of New Safe Confinement arch.
However, while the process is a highly dangerous task, the chances of any radioactive material escaping into the atmosphere are slim.
In 2016, work was completed in the New Safe Confinement arch – a 32,000 tonne outer shell that completely encompasses the original sarcophagus. Its parts was constructed in Italy and delivered to the site in northern Ukraine via 18 ships and 2,500 trucks. After being unveiled, the New Safe Confinement arch became the largest land-based object ever moved by humans.
The New Safe Confinement arch is designed to keep the area around nuclear reactor number 4 safe for another 100 years.
As they dismantle the inner sarcophagus, workers will have to simultaneously reinforce it to avoid collapse. The removed sections of concrete and steel will then be cleaned and shipped off for recycling or safe disposal.
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Charlie Cocksedge is a journalist at UNILAD. He graduated from the University of Manchester with an MA in Creative Writing, where he learnt how to write in the third person, before getting his NCTJ. His work has also appeared in such places as The Guardian, PN Review and the bin.