Ukraine takes over New Safe Confinement and promotes Chernobyl tourism

15 July 2019

Chernobyl new safe confinement (Credit: EBRD)The New Safe Confinement (NSC) built to encase the destroyed reactor 4 at the Chernobyl NPP and the sarcophagus which was hastily built around reactor  immediately after the 1986 accident to contain the radioactive residuals, was formally handed over to Ukraine on 10 July, according to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) which managed the financing of the project.

EBRD said the €1.5bn ($1.69bn) NSC was financed by 45 donor countries and institutions. It is the key component of the €2.1bn Shelter Implementation Plan, established in 1997, which involved more than 300 safety projects and activities, including completion of crucial infrastructure and stabilisation of the sarcophagus.  

EBRD said it is providing €715m of its own resources to support Chernobyl projects, including the NSC, the largest moveable land-based structure ever built, with a span of 257m. Ukraine's president Volodymyr Zelenskyy attended the ceremony; along with Chernobyl Shelter Fund chairman Hans Blix; EBRD managing director for Ukraine, Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, Matteo Patrone; EBRD nuclear safety director Balthasar Lindauer; as well as donor country representatives.

Construction of the NSC began in late 2010. The arch-shaped structure, weighing 36,000t, was built near the accident site in two halves, which were joined together in July 2015. The structure was slid into position over the third and fourth power units of Chernobyl plant in November 2016, to enable decommissioning to take place. The €935m contract for the design and construction of the NSC was signed in September 2007 between the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and Novarka (a consortium led by the French construction companies Bouygues Travaux Publics and Vinci Construction Grands Projets). The NSC is 108 metres high and 162 metres long and has a span of 257m and a lifetime of a minimum of 100 years.

The end walls serve as a partition between the contaminated areas around the unit and the remaining turbine hall. Ukrainian company PJSC Ukrenergomontazh completed the walls in October 2016. They strengthen the existing facilities and seal the NSC from the environment, preventing the spread of radioactive materials to uncontaminated areas. The structure's ventilation system will ensure a relative humidity of no more than 40% to keep the metal structure free of corrosion, while pressure differentials will prevent the release of radioactive dust and other particles. The NSC is now undergoing a year of trial operation after a final commissioning test was completed at the end of April.

Open for tourism
0n 12 July, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky signed a decree setting out plans to develop the Chernobyl exclusion zone as a site for tourism, including new walking trails and enhanced mobile phone reception in an attempt to change its negative image. He said the decree - "On the development of areas affected by radioactive contamination due to the Chernobyl disaster" - represented the start of the exclusion zone's transformation "into one of the growth points of the new Ukraine". The decree will lift "unreasonable restrictions", such as the prohibition on filming in the area, and Ukraine will popularise tourism of Chernobyl at international events. "Until now, Chernobyl has been a negative component of the Ukrainian brand. It's time to change that," he said. "We must showcase this place to the world: to scientists, ecologists, historians, tourists."

The decree will oblige officials to coordinate visits to the Chernobyl zone within three calendar days of request through electronic ticketing. If an application is refused, the applicant will be notified the day before, and not at the checkpoint. Zelensky added that Ukraine also plans to offer training events in the Chernobyl exclusion zone "for the prevention and elimination of accidents" to its partners from the European Union and NATO countries.

Chernobyl is becoming an increasingly popular travel destination. In 2018, some 70,000 tourists visited the exclusion zone including the former plant operators’ town of Pripyat. However, the result has been the need for extensive rubbish collection.

There have also been positive reports from the wider exclusion zone.  One of the areas heavily affected by radiation was the pine forest near the plant, the “Red Forest”, where the pine trees died instantly and all the leaves turned red. Many assumed that the area would become a desert for life. However, 33 years after the accident, the exclusion zone, which covers areas of both Ukraine and Belarus, is inhabited by brown bears, bison, wolves, lynx, Przewalski horses and more than 200 bird species, among other animals. In March  research groups working with Chernobyl wildlife met in Portsmouth, England to present the results of their work. These studies showed that the area hosts great biodiversity and confirmed the absence of major negative effects of current radiation levels on the animal and plant populations. For example, the TRansfer-Exposure-Effects (Tree) project, led by Nick Beresford of the UK’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, revealed the diversity of wildlife after motion detection cameras were installed for several years in different areas of the exclusion zone.

The Association of Chernobyl Tour Operators is working to obtain  UNESCO World Heritage status for the exclusion zone.

Photo: The New Safe Confinement has been officially handed over to Ukraine (Credit: EBRD)

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