Post Chornobyl: 33 Years After
While the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant was taken out of operation two decades ago, work on the site still continues. Planned operations extend half a century into the future. They are aimed at ensuring safe containment of nuclear waste and radioactive material, of which there are around 3 million cubic meters - and most of it in temporary storage.
It’s 7:00am in the town of Slavutych. Hundreds of Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant workers depart from this train station. This railway route is the shortest path, even though it crosses the state border twice going in and out of Belarus. But there will be no border control along the way.
“The train used by the power plant workers only makes one stop in the industrial zone along the way. There are Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant facilities too. But after that, the train goes through Belarus without stopping because that area is part of the exclusion zone, there aren’t any communities there,” an engineer at radioactive materials facility Chernobyl NPP, Oleksandr Panchenko, says.
Oleksandr wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and work in nuclear energy. By the time he completed his university degree, the Chornobyl power plant was taken out of operation. But Oleksandr’s mind was set.
“They offered me a job at the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant, which still functions. But I declined. I felt patriotic about my home town, my home facility. I was evacuated, so I’m practically going back to my birthplace,” Panchenko says.
Now Oleksandr, as an engineer for decommissioning the power plant, is tasked with managing the radioactive waste. Just like everyone else working in the zone, he puts on a radiation meter before getting off the train.
“This is how my usual day is. We analyze the systems, inspect the location, the equipment, analyze the findings,” Panchenko says.
2,300 men and women work on site of the decommissioned power plant. The reactors haven’t been producing electricity for the best part of two decades, but the facility’s agenda still extends at least 45 years into the future. The plans include dismantling the equipment and the derelict buildings, moving the nuclear waste into a modern facility for permanent storage and to process and securely package the radioactive debris.
“[Here is] heavy radioactive waste. So far we haven’t done the measurements, so it’s anyone’s guess how bad it is,” a worker says.
Behind this leaded glass and the radiation-proof wall, there is a room for sorting and shredding the radioactive debris. The shovel is unloading the debris from one of the old storages.
“Radiological analysis, physical classification, sorting into different streams what can be pressed, burned or fragmented down to a size which can be put in packages,” Chief Engineer, Solid Radioactive Waste Material Facility, Yaroslav Khavkin says.
The facility holds almost two and a half thousand cubic meters of radioactive waste. It needs to be extracted, studied, compacted and packed to be stored for another 30 years.
“There is hope that during this period the technology will be developed or new methods of dealing with nuclear waste that would allow to finally transform it into a safe state. So far no such technology exists,” Khavkin says.
The 30-year term is reserved for highly radioactive waste only. The low-level waste will be buried for 300 years. It will be processed first to make sure the facility with is press, furnaces, robots, sensors, and instruments are up to the challenge.
“All kinds of grinders, shredders and cutters,” Khavkin says.
Following the processing, radioactive material will be compacted by a factor of 100. The final product will be packed into these concrete capsules with the maximum radiation level strictly controlled.