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Chernobyl: Capping a Catastrophe via The New York Times

Against the decaying skyline here, a one-of-a-kind engineering project is rising near the remains of the world’s worst civilian nuclear disaster.

An army of workers, shielded from radiation by thick concrete slabs, is constructing a huge arch, sheathed in acres of gleaming stainless steel and vast enough to cover the Statue of Liberty. The structure is so otherworldly it looks like it could have been dropped by aliens onto this Soviet-era industrial landscape.

If all goes as planned, by 2017 the 32,000-ton arch will be delicately pushed on Teflon pads to cover the ramshackle shelter that was built to entomb the radioactive remains of the reactor that exploded and burned here in April 1986. When its ends are closed, it will be able to contain any radioactive dust should the aging shelter collapse.


Like a Huge Dirty Bomb

The Chernobyl accident can be likened to a huge dirty bomb, an explosion that spewed radioactive material in all directions. The blast was followed by a fire that sent even more contaminants into the atmosphere that were then carried by winds across the region and into Western Europe.


A few workers died immediately, but most of the technicians in Unit 4, and the firefighters who initially responded, suffered agonizing deaths over the ensuing weeks from exposure to high levels of radiation.

Officially, several dozen people were killed, and many others became sick. The radiation also caused thousands of later cancers — though just how many is still the subject of much debate.

In the immediate aftermath, the Soviet authorities brought in the military to fight the reactor fire and evacuate nearby villages and the city of Pripyat, home to most of the plant workers and their families. Laborers were enlisted to hastily build the concrete-and-steel shelter, known as the sarcophagus. When their radiation exposure grew too high, the workers were replaced by others; in all, more than half a million people were involved in the initial cleanup.


Some of the workers who died were his friends, including Leonid Toptunov, a young reactor operator who was in the Unit 4 control room that night. Mr. Toptunov languished for about three weeks in a Moscow hospital, his organs and tissues severely damaged by penetrating radiation. His portrait, with those of the other early victims, adorns a memorial in Slavutich, the city outside the contaminated area that was built to replace Pripyat.

Mr. Glukhov, who now helps manage the arch project, said he cannot forget the sight that greeted him when he got back to Chernobyl. He returned to the plant on Monday and worked an evening shift; leaving at midnight, he passed by Unit 4.

“I realized the scale of the disaster when I saw the open core, glowing,” he said. “I don’t wish anyone would ever see it.”

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