By Arnold Gundersen
A July 2016 article in The Guardian said that the country of Ukraine has been soliciting funds for a proposed project to turn extensive swathes of ground adjacent to Chernobyl into a gigantic solar collector full of photovoltaic panels. The story’s author, John Vidal, wrote: “In a presentation sent to major banks and seen by the Guardian 6,000 hectares of ‘idle’ land in Chernobyl’s 1,000 square km exclusion zone, which is considered too dangerous for people to live in or farm, could be turned to solar, biogas and heat and power generation.”
But is it really advisable to have solar generating facilities in the exclusion zones created by a nuclear catastrophe? On the face of it, this would seem to be a benign, innovative use of contaminated land. But are there hazards slipping in under the radar, from seemingly innocuous sources—such as radioactive dust? And looking at the situation more broadly, is the endeavor indicative of society being far too casual about the effects of serious radioactive releases from nuclear power plants?
My own experience near solar arrays in Fukushima Prefecture indicates that the problems of building and maintaining solar installations in a contaminated nuclear wasteland are over-simplified, and worse, totally ignored. One of the greatest burdens of maintaining operating atomic reactors is the cost of working in a Radiologically Controlled Area. (The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory defines a Radiologically Controlled Area as: “Any area to which access is managed to protect individuals from exposure to radiation or radioactive materials. Individuals who enter Controlled Areas without entering Radiological Areas are not expected to receive a total effective dose equivalent of more than 0.1 rem (0.001 Sievert) in a year.”) Each nuclear power plant operates with specific instructions and constraints, with Radiation Work Permits tailored for each specific maintenance activity. Because special clothing, special respiratory equipment, and special radiation monitoring equipment are routinely required to perform even minimum maintenance activities inside a nuclear power plant, every activity takes longer, costs more, and requires more people inside each reactor than necessary in any other industrial setting.
Consequently, the question becomes: Does building solar panels on land contaminated with nuclear waste resemble work in a normal industrial setting, or is it more similar to work inside a radiologically contaminated atomic reactor—at significantly higher cost?
Our dust samples, tested at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, found significant levels of radioactive cesium near every one of these new, post-Fukushima disaster solar collectors. Radiation levels in this dust were so high that, had they been found inside a nuclear power plant, the contaminated area would be classified as a Radiologically Controlled Area and would require a special Radiation Work Permit to enter.
As a result, this means that worker exposure from internal dust inhalation would be significantly higher at solar power arrays near or in both the Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi contaminated zones.
This is a significant finding, as at the moment the attitude seems to be that working in these areas is no different from working at a solar energy facility anywhere else. Instead of treating the contaminated grounds like an atomic reactor site, workers wear everyday industrial clothing to perform maintenance (and save the company significant costs in the process). I witnessed TEPCO personnel wearing paper surgical facemasks that remove only 30 percent of the radioactive dust at most. Such masks do little; the US Defense Nuclear Agency has said “It is doubtful that the use of the [paper] surgical mask served more than a psychological barrier.” The University of South Florida seems to agree, saying “…workers may experience a false sense of security when wearing [paper] surgical masks.”
During my expeditions in Fukushima Prefecture, I chose to wear an industrial-grade particulate respirator, with a 99.9 percent removal efficiency. Wearing it was uncomfortable, but after just six hours of use, the mask’s double filters each had captured 17 disintegrations per second of radioactive cesium as measured later at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. My lungs would have been contaminated with that cesium if I had only worn a surgical paper mask. Apparently, TEPCO has chosen not to protect these workers; however, we would hope that the Ukrainian government would make human health a priority, considering that it said in its presentation to banking institutions that “A special industrial area is to be created in compliance with all rules and regulations of radiation safety within the exclusion zone.” Exactly what radiation protection measures will be used by the Ukrainian government to build this solar equipment is not stated.
All solar collectors have known issues with dust buildup on their panels. If the accumulation of radioactive dust near a newly installed solar facility in Fukushima Prefecture—only five years after the meltdown—is so significant that protective clothing and respirators are required for routine maintenance, then the cost of building solar power systems in radiologically contaminated areas may prove prohibitive.