28 Years Later: How Engineers Are Safeguarding the Chernobyl Nuclear Site

Although the Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred back in 1986, Chernobyl is still an exceptionally hazardous zone with high levels of radiation close to the reactor. Civil engineers have been working to develop and implement a €1.5 billion Shelter Implantation Plan (SIP) since 1998; however, they’ve met more than their fair share of challenges. Due to insufficient infrastructure, training, roads, and technology, over twenty-two separate projects had to be completed before the safety shelter could even be designed and built. But after twenty-seven years, construction of Chernobyl’s New Safe Confinement (NSC) finally began and is a work in progress.
The NSC is a steel arch designed to protect the hastily-built sarcophagus, allow engineers to safety clean up the nuclear site, and last for at least 100 years. It stands at 108 meters tall, 257 meters wide, 150 meters long, and weighs 31,000 tons, and it’s currently being assembled 600 meters aware from the damaged reactor. The engineers hope to carefully slide the confinement structure over Chernobyl’s most hazardous zone along tracks in 2015.
Chernobyl Construction
Given the dangerous levels of radiation in the area, the safety of the engineers and construction workers is an enormous concern. In fact, Ukrainian authorities believe the 30 kilometer zone around Chernobyl won’t be safe for another 20,000 years. In response, the engineers developed one of the most challenging and impressive engineering projects in the modern world. “Nothing like this has ever been attempted before,” commented Don Kelly, a nuclear industry veteran who works with specialists from 24 nations and hundreds of Ukrainian workers.
The top part of the NSC arch was constructed first, and then legs were attached, tied together, and stabilized. The NSC was assembled in two halves, and according to World Nuclear News, the two halves were planned for completion by the end of the 2014. At that point, the arch will be fitted with cladding, cranes, and remote handling equipment.” One of the most impressive aspects of the project is the giant overhead crane that will be attached under the shelter roof.
Engineers then must slide the massive structure over the reactor building unit and part of the turbine hall using hydraulic jacks. “We’ve reduced friction enough that our concern is not about how we get it going, it’s how do we stop it, and how do we prevent it from moving before we want to because there’s a huge surface area for the wind to act on here,” said Dr. Eric Schmieman, a civil engineer from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and a senior technical advisor of the project. The final step is building walls at the end to strengthen the unit and make it airtight.
Chernobyl Shell
Not surprisingly, the Chernobyl project is running late and over budget. “We clearly see that our current contract for completion in October 2015 can’t be maintained. The schedule is currently being revised, but is likely to be a year or two late,” said Vince Novak, Director of Nuclear Safety at the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development, which is coordinating financing from more than forty countries. Unexpected construction costs, insufficient donor funds, Ukraine’s financial troubles, and the current conflict with Russia are making matters even worse.

But despite these complexities, construction continues to proceed at the Chernobyl nuclear site. According to NCS operations leaders, cladding on the first arch was 63% complete on March 18, 2014 and proceeding smoothly. Extra biomedical measures will be necessary to construct the technical building, because it is in a far more contaminated area than the arch. Despite the bumps and snags along the way, the Chernobyl project remains an unprecedented international collaboration and an application of engineering technology on a monumental scale.

Photo credit: Tim Porter, Ingmar Runge via WikiMedia Commons

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