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The ultimate security blanket via The Economist

Almost three decades after the catastrophe that wrecked it, a proper tomb for reactor number four at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant is nearing completion

“YOU can take photos. But stay on the road. Don’t step onto the grass.” It is 28 years since the world’s worst nuclear accident, at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine, but visitors are still told to be careful. Though much of the plant (at which, even now, 3,000 people work) has been decontaminated, and the roads cleaned up, the surrounding forest has hotspots where fragments of debris and nuclear fuel, ejected by the explosion that destroyed reactor number four on April 26th 1986, emit dangerous radiation.

At the moment, the reactor’s remains are sealed in by a concrete and steel structure known officially as the Shelter Object and colloquially as the sarcophagus. This has done its job for nearly three decades, but there are doubts it can manage a fourth. Wind, rain, rust and time have taken their toll, and the radiation level within it makes maintenance near-impossible. Many fear it may collapse.

That is why visitors to Chernobyl these days will see a huge and growing building looming in front of reactor four’s remains. This is the New Safe Confinement (NSC; it has yet to attract a nickname). It is in essence, as the picture shows, a giant double-skinned stainless-steel Nissen hut, which will have flat walls at each end. It weighs 30,000 tonnes; is taller, at 110 metres, than the Statue of Liberty; and is 165 metres long and 260 metres broad. It is being built by Novarka, a French consortium, and its cost, €1.5 billion, is met by donations from dozens of countries, administered by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. It was scheduled for completion in 2005, but political foot-dragging and wrangling over who would pay have delayed its construction by more than a decade. When it is finished, though—probably in 2017—it will protect the sarcophagus from the ravages of the weather and ensure that, even if that older container does fall down, no radiation will escape. With luck, it will be able to do this for a century.

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