April 26th marked the 29th anniversary of the Chernobyl catastrophe, the worst nuclear disaster in history. And, according to a new Greenpeace report, preventing further major releases of radioactivity into the environment seems to be a race against time. There are more than 1.5 million tons of radioactive dust inside the ruins. And a collapse of the sarcophagus and other structures, which could lead to their release into the environment, cannot be ruled out.
There are more than 1.5 million tonnes of radioactive dust inside the ruins. If the sarcophagus were to collapse, a high volume of radioactive material would be released, and could lead to an exposure to radiation as far as 50 kilometers away. There are also nearly 2,000 tonnes of flammable materials inside the sarcophagus. In the event of a fire, even without a collapse, heat from the fire could cause the release of a high level of radioactive dust particles.
In order to help minimize this risk, the Shelter Implementation Plan was agreed to in 1997.[…]
The shelter itself is designed with the exceedingly limited goals of preventing further water leaking into the destroyed reactor and becoming contaminated – as has happened as the current sarcophagus has deteriorated – and to contain radioactive material in the event of the total collapse of the existing reactor sarcophagus. It is projected to last for only 100 years.
As the author of the new Greenpeace report concludes, “a major drawback of the SIP, however, is that recovering the fuel-containing material is not part of the project, although the greatest threat to the environment and people comes precisely from these fuel-containing, highly radioactive substances. While the protective shell is designed to make it possible for this fuel-containing material to be recovered at a later point in time, the financial means to actually implement fuel containing material recovery are not provided by the SIP. Thus, the long-term threat posed by the destroyed reactor block will not have been averted by the current efforts underway. In short, it must be stated that 29 years after the worst nuclear disaster the world has yet seen, the damaged reactor is still a danger. A real solution to the situation is nowhere in sight.”
As with the more recent Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, there is no foreseeable solution for Chernobyl. Despite the continuing decline of the nuclear power industry worldwide, hundreds of ageing nuclear reactors continue to operate, while new reactors are being built – which increases nuclear risks significantly. Almost certainly whenever the next accident happens in the 21st century, efforts will still be underway to contain and manage the Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi sites.
What Chernobyl, Fukushima, and hundreds of smaller nuclear accidents have clearly shown is the inherent risk of the nuclear technology: there will always be an unforeseen combination of human failure, technology error, and natural disaster that could lead to a major reactor accident and massive release of radiation. The lessons are clear – there is by definition no such thing as “nuclear safety.” The only way to make sure that the next Chernobyl and Fukushima does not happen is to phase nuclear out.