Work on Chernobyl cover continues despite funding concerns - updated

2 April 2014 by Will Dalrymple

New Safe Confinement at Chernobyl. A recent photo of the arches from  construction consortium partner Bouygues.

 

As the process to move the first half of the Chernobyl arch gets underway, it is clear that Chernobyl new safe confinement project is running out of money.

On 31 March the first skidding operation of the Chernobyl new safe confinement began. Half of the giant, 110m-high arch that will eventually cover the damaged unit 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant will be pushed several hundred metres toward the plant in a temporary parking position to make way for the other half to be erected in its spot. (As of 1 April it had moved by 54m)

The arches, graceful latticeworks of steel tube sections, are built in sections from the centre span out to the edges, raised periodically using hydraulic jacks mounted on temporary towers.

The new half arch is scheduled to be lifted in May, September and November 2014. Once it is completed, the two will be joined together and then skidded together over the Chernobyl sarcophagus to provide a hundred-year containment of the crumbling shell of Chernobyl unit 4 and its dangerous and unstable inventory of melted fuel.

Running late and over budget

It has become clear that the project is running late and over budget, said Vince Novak, director of nuclear safety at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which is coordinating financing from donor countries around the world. "We clearly see that our current contract for completion in October 2015 can't be maintained," he said. The schedule is currently being revised, but is likely to be a year or two late. "This date also depends very much also on how long the commissioning of the arch takes; this is certainly something that no-one has experience with."

"It is clear that the funding committed in 2011 will not be sufficient to complete the project...A revised cost estimate should be completed in a few weeks"

The arch is not a passive structure; heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems installed within the arch, and controlled in a new technical building currently under construction near the west wall of the Chernobyl sarcophagus, will maintain relatively low humidity (less than 40%) and maintain pressure to prevent leaks. This is the primary source of extra costs. "The HVAC turned out to be bigger and more demanding, and as a consequence the instrumentation & control is bigger too."

He added: "It is clear that the funding committed in 2011 will not be sufficient to complete the project. Donors were made aware of that as we learned that in the middle of last year." He said that a revised cost estimate should be completed in a few weeks, and another donor meeting would be held. He said that he hoped that donors would find a way to finance completing the project. "Despite all our good work, stabilising the site, reducing or eliminating other risks, without completing the new safe confinement the whole safety object would have been missed."

Novak also said that despite Ukraine's financial troubles, it has been paying its contributions to the project on time. But he added: "In our financial analysis we are of course making the working assumption that it will not receive any money from Ukraine in the near term." He was referring to the current conflict with Russia.

Construction continues

Cladding on the first arch was 63% complete as of 18 March, and was proceeding smoothly despite its complexity, according to Simon Evans, EBRD Chernobyl new safe confinement operations leader. He does not see any major hurdles constructing the second half of the arch or skidding them into position.

The bigger challenges are the sealing operations and managing interfaces between the newly-built arch and the old partially-destroyed power plant. These operations will have to be carried out where radiation levels are high, and where there are large quantities of contaminated debris.

However, one vital modification of the old structure went smoothly, Evans says: the removal of the old ventilation stack. This 76m-tall reinforced concrete structure was in a very contaminated area high off the ground, but had to go to allow the arch to cover the entirety of the damaged unit 4. But in November 2013 the chimney was cut and brought down in seven lifts, and the hole was sealed off.

"That worried us because it was a dirty job, and it was the first time any work was carried out to deconstruct the original structure," Evans said.

The current project to build the new technical building is challenging because it is in a far more contaminated area than the arch. Construction consortium NOVARKA has built a temporary rad-protection wall, but extra biomedical measures are still required for workers.


Photo: Chernobyl New Safe Confinement. A recent photo of the arches from construction consortium partner Bouygues.

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