Stalled: the Chernobyl rescue ark

Stalled: the Chernobyl rescue ark

The new shelter is going to be the eighth wonder of the world -  it`s an amazing piece of engineering which is on the scale of the Egyptians building the pyramids.

Plans to build an engineering wonder of the world - a gigantic lbs300m hangar to prevent a second disaster at Chernobyl - have been stalled by a series of rows between western donors and the Ukrainian government.

Known to its designers as "the Ark", the arch-shaped tubular structure,360ft high and 900ft across, will make safe the site of the world`s worst nuclear accident when it is finally given the go-ahead.

Scientists and international aid donors who will meet in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, this week on the 20th anniversary of the accident were hoping to announce approval for work to begin on the Ark. But the project has become embroiled in wrangling between the donors, the French-led engineering consortium and the Ukrainian authorities over the tendering procedure.

The massive structure, officially called the New Safe Confinement, is designed to cover the hastily constructed "sarcophagus" that encases the highly radioactive remains of Number Four reactor. The sarcophagus was built within months of the disaster, with helicopters lifting slabs of concrete into place to cover the devastated reactor building. An estimated 200 tons of radioactive matter lies within the temporary structure but the sarcophagus and everything within it are contaminated.

The European Union and other international donors have spent tens of millions of pounds on stabilising the structure, which many had feared would collapse, releasing its deadly contents in another calamity.

The new shield has been designed to contain the radioactive remains for the next 100 years. The Ark is intended not only to enclose the site but to permit work by remote- controlled devices or specially trained teams to dismantle and store the lethal material safely.

Large prefabricated portions of the arches will be brought to Chernobyl and assembled in two halves at a distance from the sarcophagus to minimize workers` exposure to radiation. The final operation to lock the two parts together will be performed within 24 hours by sliding them into place on a specially constructed railway line.

To enable the ruined reactor to be dismantled, the Ark has been designed to carry four bridge cranes which will be suspended from the arches. Each crane will be capable of lifting 100 tons. Railway carriages shielded against the radiation will transport workers deep into the bowels of the new structure.

Ukraine`s political instability since the Orange revolution 15 months ago - three ministers have been responsible for the scheme in that time – has added to the air of uncertainty surrounding the Ark project.

The funds for the programme, to total ?600m, are being administered by the London-based European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Vince  Novak, the director of the bank`s nuclear safety department, said: "It is disappointing we won`t be able to declare on the 20th anniversary that work on the new shelter is to commence." But he predicted the dispute would be resolved soon. "Hopefully a new government will be in place which will realise there is no alternative to proceed."

David Sycamore, a Briton who works for the EU`s delegation in Kiev, said: "If a similar disaster had happened in Britain the sarcophagus couldn`t have been built in such a short time because in a democracy you couldn`t have ordered people into a fatally dangerous zone.

"The new shelter is going to be the eighth wonder of the world - it`s an amazing piece of engineering which is on the scale of the Egyptians building the pyramids."

Ukrainians maintain that tens of thousands of people have died of radiation-related illnesses. After the disaster the city of Pripyat, which housed Chernobyl`s workers and their families, was emptied of inhabitants. Today it has a chilling, post-apocalyptic look to it.

Ragged curtains blow through the broken windows of apartments in deserted and crumbling high-rise blocks. The streets with their Lenin statues and fading posters exhorting a march towards a communist paradise are being reclaimed by vegetation.

The 47 villages in the exclusion zone around Chernobyl were also evacuated, but scores of mainly elderly people who could not adapt to the cramped city apartments they were offered, have returned surreptitiously. Eventually the authorities were forced tacitly to accept their presence. The zone`s inhabitants can collect their pensions and once every two weeks each village is visited by a policeman to check that everyone is still alive.

Adam Lahovskiy, an 82-year-old war veteran who lives in a small, single-storey timber cottage, said: "I was not going to allow the Chernobyl disaster to drive me out." His wife Nina said that a van selling bread and other staples visited once a week and they spent their pension on food and medicine. They keep chickens and supplement their diet with berries and wild mushrooms - some of the food most contaminated by radiation. Their son visits regularly to help out.

Herds of boars are among the wildlife now thriving in the exclusion zone despite the radiation. Mostly free of human predators, the area provides sanctuary for moose, rare Przewalski horses and even wolves.

Although most Ukrainians wanted to close down their nuclear industry for years after the accident, four other power stations - including Europe`s largest at Zaporizhya - have continued to operate.

Ukraine is dependent for much of its energy, especially gas, on Russia, which quadrupled prices earlier this year as punishment for Ukraine straying away from Moscow`s orbit and cultivating closer ties with the EU and Nato.

Developing the country`s nuclear industry has become a priority: Ukraine wants to build up to 13 more reactors for its own needs and to export electricity to western Europe. David Corbett from Lancashire, who works for a private company hired by the EU, said: "We are here to ensure another Chernobyl can never happen."      

The news was monitored by The Action Ukraine Report (AUR) Monitoring Service, Morgan Williams, Editor.

 

by Askold Krushelnycky from Chernobyl, Ukraine, The Sunday Times, London, UK

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