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“What’s been the biggest challenge? Every single thing,” he said.
April 29, 2014 8:01 AM   Subscribe

Twenty-eight years on, the struggle to build a permanent containment building at Chernobyl.
posted by Chrysostom (35 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite

 
That this job will fall from international hands to those of Ukraine presents new worries, especially as Russia threatens the nation’s borders.

Good to see this FPP. I have been surprised at how little Chernobyl has been mentioned in the current troubles in Ukraine. I am pretty sure the Ukrainians wouldn't be too upset to see Russia take this bit of territory back - which is why the Russians will make sure there remains enough of a Ukraine left to keep it from becoming a Russian problem. Putin is a lot of things, stupid is not one of them.

The long term (nothing having to do with nuclear waste is permanent) containment of Chernobyl is one of the things which Obama's hand-waving threat of sanctions would no doubt complicate and which would be of no service to anyone.

The engineers and workers involved in the clean-up are engaged in truly heroic work and it is a pity they do not get more recognition and support and that there is not more of an international consensus on the importance of all of it.
posted by three blind mice at 8:22 AM on April 29 [2 favorites]


I think they are getting recognition, but just in the quiet someone has to do it, might as well be us kind of a way that infrastructure engineers work.

I'm guessing the picture noise in the Elephant's Foot video is from ionizing radiation. Never thought I'd see footage (ahem) of that modern Moloch.
posted by scruss at 8:39 AM on April 29


From the video, the arch sounded like the end of the project, and I was not reassured to hear "Engineers say the structure will last 100 years." I am glad to know that there is a clean up plan beyond that, but not so glad to realize that no one knows who's going to enact the plan.

I guess the heaviest structure ever lifted is better than nothing.....
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:05 AM on April 29


In 100 years, the earth may have bigger problems than radiation from this site. Fascinating description of the structure and how it's being built, thanks!
posted by agregoli at 9:15 AM on April 29 [2 favorites]


This is why everybody else's reactor designs have always included building a containment structure before starting the reactor.
posted by Camofrog at 9:29 AM on April 29 [2 favorites]


...not so glad to realize that no one knows who's going to enact the plan.

Articles about dealing with nuclear waste always hold this odd fascination for me, for exactly that reason. We're laying plans and building structures designed to outlast us all, many times over. In some cases, material needs to be safely contained for longer than humans have existed as a species so far, never mind shorter spans like how long we've had something we'd recognise as a language, or eyeblinks like the survival of an empire or nation. Starting containment plans that will take a few generations to complete, and need to be monitored or at least understood and avoided far beyond that, really feels like we're living in the first chapter of one of those deep-future science fiction novels.
posted by metaBugs at 9:50 AM on April 29 [4 favorites]


For those with time to kill, BBC Horizon made a great episode on the Chernobyl disaster, aftermath, and (old) sarcophagus:

Inside Chernobyl's Sarcophagus (YouTube, 46:25)
posted by I Havent Killed Anybody Since 1984 at 10:37 AM on April 29 [6 favorites]


i'm a Chernobyl freak, i've devoured information about it for years. it's a gigantic clusterfuck and will be for hundreds of years. they talk about cleanup but there is no such thing. there is only moving the poison and filth to a new location. and the worst part is there are reactors all over the world. no need for meltdowns and accidents, each is generating its own massive pile of highly radioactive "spent" fuel, stored on site in pools of water. and nobody, anywhere, has the slightest fucking clue what's to be done with it. do you think the national debt is the worst legacy we're leaving our descendants? if only.
posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 10:52 AM on April 29 [8 favorites]


Tourism, Construction and an Ongoing Nuclear Crisis at Chernobyl
posted by valkane at 11:00 AM on April 29


I was fascinated/horrified by the recent news story that the exclusion zone is missing microbes and other decomposers that cause the decay of organic matter.
posted by heatvision at 12:03 PM on April 29 [4 favorites]


Two things I'm always fascinated by when I read about Chernobyl :

One, how can you build a nuclear reactor without a containment unit? I mean, really? Was this the "cross your fingers and hope everything turns out okay" plan? It's not like they didn't know what a containment unit was. And isn't a containment unit basically just a shit ton of concrete? Wouldn't that be, like, the cheapest part of the whole plant? Are there other reactors out there in the world without containment units? Are people ... um ... doing anything about that?

And two, the fact that the plant was operational until 2000. I didn't find that out until a number of years ago. For me, "Chernobyl" was always synonymous with "irrecoverable disaster". Imagine my shock to find out that, for some, it was also synonymous with "my workplace". For like 14 years after the accident! Could you imagine what it must have been like to go to work there every day?
posted by evil otto at 12:34 PM on April 29 [3 favorites]


how can you build a nuclear reactor without a containment unit? I mean, really?

The lack of a containment unit was the least of the Chernobyl reactor's problems. Thanks to the USSR's obsession with having a home-grown reactor design, they came up with a fuel system that's vastly more prone to meltdowns than Western reactors (metal-tipped fuel rods that actually raise the temperature when removed), and with less of a failsafe (a graphite core with a far higher evaporation point than the Western water core).

Still, the fact that the current cleanup crew is getting to wear protective gear is an improvement over how the Soviets did it the first time, when they just sent everyone out in a fireman's uniform and made it illegal to discuss the possibility of radiation poisoning.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 12:57 PM on April 29 [3 favorites]


heatvision, great article. The wood and leaf litter doesn't decompose so it builds up, which creates a massive forest fire hazard, on the smoke of which the radiation spreads.. process, repeat. Over 100s or thousands of years the radiation keeps spreading and killing ecosystems like a cancer. The idea of "containment" and sacrificial dead zones in the event of a meltdown needs to be revisited.
posted by stbalbach at 1:22 PM on April 29 [4 favorites]


do you think the national debt is the worst legacy we're leaving our descendants?

It looks more and more likely that our worst legacy will be a massive extinction and the completely screwed climate that caused it. Next to that, nuclear waste seems completely trivial. YMMV.
posted by Camofrog at 1:31 PM on April 29 [2 favorites]


Thanks to the USSR's obsession with having a home-grown reactor design

Was the West actually sharing nuclear reactor designs with the Soviets back then?
posted by smackfu at 1:36 PM on April 29 [1 favorite]


As I understand it (and this is based on research I did in the 90s, so more info may have come out), the USSR had Western reactor designs thanks to a combination of espionage and ordinary research (little of it was classified). But some high-placed people in the Soviet atomic energy bureau were determined to have a uniquely Soviet design, that could produce greater power output. Hence a design that got much hotter, with little provision for the shoddy failures you would expect of the undermotivated capitalist bourgeoisie.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 3:22 PM on April 29 [5 favorites]


Even at that, the Chernobyl design still wasn't all that unique. It was what is called a graphite-moderated reactor (relatively modern Western designs are generally water moderated designs).

Graphite moderated designs were an early approach in western reactors, but after the Windscale disaster, we realized the inherent problems with the designs.

I would attribute the Soviet adoption of this design more to bureacratic inertia, generally totalitarian state, cronyism, etc, the same forces that lead to the colossally stupid and irresponsible omission of a containment structure, rather than some overweening pride in technical excellence.
posted by robatsu at 4:53 PM on April 29 [1 favorite]


One, how can you build a nuclear reactor without a containment unit?

I guess the "containment" was "a chunk of Ukraine Moscow doesn't care about." See? Contained!

they just sent everyone out in a fireman's uniform

Not that any amount of protection would help that much when you're tossing chunks of radioactive graphite off the roof.
posted by BungaDunga at 4:56 PM on April 29 [3 favorites]


The NYT article mentions that some heavy machinery used in the cleanup was just left on-site because it had "become radioactive". What's happening here? Is it just contaminated with radioactive material from the reactor, or can exposure to radiation actually cause materials to become radioactive themselves? How does this happen?

Also, what exactly is the enormous arch supposed to accomplish? Is it essentially supposed to keep clouds of radioactive material from being scattered into the air? Couldn't it still blow out the sides? Wouldn't it be simpler and cheaper to just build a smaller arch?
posted by vogon_poet at 5:31 PM on April 29


The arch building will eventually completely encase the reactor building and (hopefully) totally isolate it from the environment. There won't be any open spaces when the project is finished.

The sides are open now because they aren't constructing the arch in place; the reactor area is just too hazardous for that. Instead, they're assembling as much as possible and then sliding the arch sections over top of the reactor building, after which they'll work on sealing up the sides.

The Guardian has an interesting animated video of the construction plan from back in 2011.
posted by ceribus peribus at 6:14 PM on April 29 [2 favorites]


(And now I notice that the NYT article has some animated sections in it; something about them are not playing well with my ad blocker)
posted by ceribus peribus at 6:18 PM on April 29


What really bothers me is the “TIL nuclear technology is totally safe, all nuclear disasters were caused by human error!” meme. Like, it’s so freaking easy to create a safety culture that needs to last longer than all of human history to date. To these folk, nuclear skeptics might as well be science denying Creationists.

Kinda funny that dismissing the difficulty of creating safety culture is exactly the thing that makes it difficult to create a persistent safety culture in the first place.

The smartest engineers were on hand at Fukushima and they had little understanding of how the plumbing was connected and what signs to look for to see that the failsafes were not working. The leadership at Chernobyl chose to ignore their own safety procedures. Nobody at Hanford created a continuity plan to maintain the storage and new leaks are found all the time.

A culture of nuclear boosterism needs to be balanced by an equally rabid culture of nuclear skepticism. The balance and debate between these two cultures is the only hope we have for carrying forward prudent nuclear policy that needs to last tens of thousands of years.
posted by Skwirl at 7:20 PM on April 29 [7 favorites]


It will be the biggest construction of its kind in the world

And to think we* will undertake this super stabilizing effort simply because of a major fuckup!

Let's hope things go as planned, seeing as how we can't even maintain a stable political situation.

*we = the human race
Far be it from me to single out any particular stupidity on the part of any nation or peoples.
posted by BlueHorse at 7:23 PM on April 29


Those cars we used to build and drive without seat belts or airbags sure were dangerous! Especially those damn Soviet models.

Ergo, I think we should stop building new cars and just phase out the ones we have. Maybe we'll all grow wings or something.
posted by Camofrog at 7:50 PM on April 29 [3 favorites]


ecil otto: One, how can you build a nuclear reactor without a containment unit? I mean, really? Was this the "cross your fingers and hope everything turns out okay" plan? It's not like they didn't know what a containment unit was. And isn't a containment unit basically just a shit ton of concrete? Wouldn't that be, like, the cheapest part of the whole plant? Are there other reactors out there in the world without containment units? Are people ... um ... doing anything about that?

The RBMK reactor design was driven by the desire to make big reactors cheaply (to power Mother Russia, and possibly to make some plutonium on the side). They chose natural or low-enriched uranium as greatly lower fuel costs, but this choice forced three trade offs:
1) The need to use an efficient moderator like graphite, despite the known fire risk.
2) The high "Positive Void Reactivity" coefficient which increases the speed at which bad things happen in an accident, and
3) The un-enriched fuel has a much smaller percentage of fissile uranium, so for a given power output, the reactor needs more fuel (ie, bigger core).

The USSR basically ignored the dangers due to 1 and 2 AFAIK (leading to Legasov's suicide). As for 3, the size of the reactor would have made a containment building pretty huge, and that would go against the primary design driver (cost). Instead, they added a "Reactor over-pressure Protection System" (a big water tank under the reactor building) to condense any steam that might escape a damaged reactor and keep pressures low enough to prevent an explosion. This system was sized for a "design basis" accident of one or two fuel channels bursting only. The Chernobyl accident was *ahem* much larger than the design basis accident.

There are good, public assessments of the flaws in the RBMK design, and the efforts made by the international community to ameliorate them post chernobyl.

And yes, although the primary risks have been abated somewhat as discussed above, Russia still operates three RBMK stations without containment buildings. (To be fair, the containment structures in 1st gen BWRs have proven to be inadequate as well per Fukushima).
posted by Popular Ethics at 8:57 PM on April 29 [10 favorites]


What's happening here? Is it just contaminated with radioactive material from the reactor, or can exposure to radiation actually cause materials to become radioactive themselves? How does this happen?

Contamination most certainly. The ground was littered with radionuclides after the explosion. It would have been extremely difficult (and ultimately pointless) to decontaminate the equipment.

You can "cause materials to become radioactive themselves", but to do it you need to hit them with neutrons, which you can only do inside a working reactor or particle accelerator.
posted by Popular Ethics at 9:15 PM on April 29 [1 favorite]


30 Years After Chernobyl’s Meltdown, Gripping Photos Expose the Human Fallout
posted by homunculus at 10:02 PM on April 29


Contaminated materials are not something that just happens in disasters like Chernobyl, vogon_poet. Many nuclear facilities have contaminated equipment that must be essentially quarantined just as if it were radioactive material itself, and this contributes to the nuclear waste (which is not all fuel, you see) storage problem as a general principle.

As noted, there was no point to decontaminating it. While there are emergency procedures, the cost of making a (say) bulldozer clean enough to take back out into the world exceeds the cost of a new bulldozer, even assuming it really is practical to do so -- and the reactor/accident site remains the safest place to leave something like that. It only became a problem when the specific disposal location became necessary for building the arch.

I am pretty sure the Ukrainians wouldn't be too upset to see Russia take this bit of territory back

More to the point, it's shameful they did not take the lead in funding and building the arch. (The money has primarily come from the EU.) Of all the things to stick Ukraine with....

One, how can you build a nuclear reactor without a containment unit? I mean, really? Was this the "cross your fingers and hope everything turns out okay" plan?

Well, as noted above, they weren't the only reactors built with that serious a flaw. In theory, containment is only necessary if all your other failsafes ... fail. The tricky (and sad, because it has so many positive aspects) thing about nuclear power is that you have to have a lot of failsafes and the training and operational practice to manage those one-in-a-million confluences of failures. The human factor is really, really important and has figured in most of the really major accidents in a big way. I mean, one of them is realizing soon enough how big of a fucked up situation you really are actually in, and that seems to have escaped key decision-makers at Chernobyl, at Fukushima, at Three Mile Island, and so on. Who knows how many deaths could have been avoided if Pripyat were immediately evacuated instead of the next day? Really, Fukushima shouldn't have been necessary to teach us that even the "First World" can have a major nuclear accident with repercussions that will extend out a century.

I mean, I go back and forth on this. On the one hand I see how this arch will enable a real cleanup to begin at Unit 4 and I'm excited to think of what we'll learn by managing this aftermath, as the accident still has very much to teach us. On the other hand, I'm really disturbed by the social costs of even one major accident and what that means about the ratio against the benefits achieved from some decades of cheap electricity. (See also: Berkeley Pit.) But I think definitely the Cold War and much of the aftermath of that allowed the West to be pretty smug about the implications of Chernobyl: See! It was those stupid Soviets and their Five Year Plans! Well, guess what.

Still, I can't let sentiments like stbalbach's slide: which creates a massive forest fire hazard, on the smoke of which the radiation spreads.. process, repeat. Over 100s or thousands of years the radiation keeps spreading and killing ecosystems like a cancer.

There is this nice feature about radioactivity: it happens due to atomic-level decay. It's accompanied by a half-life. Radioactivity can spread, but that also means it diffuses. So both larger area and larger time scale both mean less concentrated radioactivity. It's why in some ways the contamination from Fukushima flowing into the Pacific Ocean is probably the best thing. Sure, we'll be able to detect radionucleides traceable back to Fukushima on any beach in the world at some point, but they won't exceed background radiation levels. Similarly, I recall a discussion about radioactive fallout from Chernobyl affecting lamb meat in Greece and how ironic it was that countries were blocking imports, because the best thing on a humanity-wide scale would be to spread out that lamb meat to as many people as possible. It's like flooding -- when you have copious wetlands and lowlands, the floodwaters have more space to spread out to at a lower flood height, but when you channelize the stream you give it less room and it inevitably causes more damage when it has smaller area to flood.

Anyway, one last point is that I've always believed bringing Ukraine into the democratic/open-society fold was important, because we need that society to be open in order to study this stuff long-term. One of the critical factors in the Chernobyl disaster in the first place was secrecy and political blinders.
posted by dhartung at 11:58 PM on April 29 [6 favorites]


dhartung, I had plutonium in mind which has a half life so long it's not worth considering on human-species time scales, and a molecule of plutonium so small it can't be seen, like a dust particle, is enough to kill. See Rocky Flats in Colorado.

Chernobyl released a zoo of radiation types with various half-lives, including (but not limited to):

radio-iodine .. 8 days
caesium-137 .. 30 years
isotopes of strontium .. hours and seconds
zirconium-95 .. 64.02 days
niobium-95 .. 34.991 days
lanthanum-140 .. 1.6781 days
cerium-144 .. 284.91 days
Tellurium-132 .. 78 hours
Xenon-133 .. 5 days

Caesium-137 is the main source at this point, but the others are still contributing. It's disturbing but not biblical. Plutonium is biblical. I think there was some Plutonium release at Fukushima.

As for the tree scenario, I wonder how many 30-year half-lives have to go by before the dead wood begins to decompose. I don't think anyone really knows. None of the fungi and insects evolved to deal with radiation above normal background levels. How long will it take for Chernobyl to reach normal background? 300 years? How many forest fires will happen in that time span.. one every 50 years or so? That's a lot of fires and a lot of radiation being spread around. It's not the 1000 year span I mentioned you are right, but still a very long term threat.
posted by stbalbach at 10:19 AM on April 30


The nice (for fine definitions of nice) thing about Plutonium (and other heavy element) contamination is that it's not likely to travel very far from where it spills. Instead tends to sit and sink (unlike caesium and iodine which are water soluble).

Back on topic, the near-completion of the New Safe Confinement is a welcome development.
posted by Popular Ethics at 1:55 PM on April 30


Shouldn't the soil around Nagasaki be (relatively) loaded with plutonium? It doesn't seem like it is. Maybe there is not enough in a bomb to do the job, or maybe it mostly got converted in the explosion?
posted by Camofrog at 2:12 PM on April 30


Shouldn't the soil around Nagasaki be (relatively) loaded with plutonium?

Good question! I'm not sure of the answer. The Fat Man bomb held only about 13 kg of Plutonium. By comparison, Chernobyl had hundreds of pounds of the stuff (thousands? Can't find a good reference in mass measurements).

That said, there's an inverse relationship between half-life and energy. Plutonium 238, 239, 240 have long half-lives, which means pound for pound they aren't all that radioactive compared to the short half-life nuclides. That's why contamination is usually reported not in mass, but in "Becquerels" or "Curies", which actually measures the radioactivity. Per this table, plutonium doesn't make up a very significant chunk of the radioactivity released by Chernobyl. It's the nuclides in the deadly sweet spot you have to worry about (like Caesium 137 and Strontium 90): short enough half-lives to be powerful, but long enough half-lives that you can't wait for them to peter out.
posted by Popular Ethics at 2:59 PM on April 30 [1 favorite]


Plutonium is not particularly dangerous unless it is ingested somehow then it's deadly. The idea that it doesn't move or spread around because it's a heavy metal is not accurate because wind and water (and fire) move it around. See Rocky Flats and all the people impacted there. They also were told it didn't move.
posted by stbalbach at 6:18 PM on April 30 [2 favorites]


> Articles about dealing with nuclear waste always hold this odd fascination for me, for exactly that reason. [...] Starting containment plans that will take a few generations to complete [...] feels like we're living in the first chapter of one of those deep-future science fiction novels.

That's precisely what interested me in the non-fiction book Deep Time by physicist and sci-fi author Gregory Benford. There's an excerpt online that includes a lot of the discussion of the nuclear waste problem.
posted by Monochrome at 4:35 PM on May 4 [1 favorite]


Monochrome, that's a fascinating article. Thanks!
posted by metaBugs at 4:56 AM on May 6 [2 favorites]


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