Building Chernobyl Disaster's New Safe Confinement 'Unprecedented in History Of Engineering' [VIDEO]

By Ajit Jha on November 30, 2013 12:45 PM EST

New Safe Confinement
The New Safe Confinement is expected to seal off any radiation emitted from the Chernobyl disaster. (Photo: Tim Porter, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Three decades later, the Chernobyl disaster may just be a memory to some, but the radioactive mess it created continues to threaten the health of Ukrainians. The New Safe Confinement, a giant arch that's being built to cover the current containment structure, is slated to be one of engineering's biggest feats ever, with the aim of reducing the risk of radiation-related illness at its source.

The huge engineering project is designed to seal off hundreds of tons of nuclear fuel and dust buried under the power plant's reactor number four, which burned for 10 days in 1986. Chernobyl's transformation is currently in full swing, and is made possible by the combined efforts of the international community; Ukraine is receiving assistance from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). The new structure currently being built will eventually insulate the shelter that was built immediately after the disaster.

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The New Safe Confinement is an unprecedented engineering feat designed to make the site safe for eventual dismantling. Work on the New Safe Confinement started in 2010, and is expected to be completed by 2015. It was after years of groundwork and preparation under the guidelines of the Shelter Implementation Plan (SIP), which assessed and mediated the risks inherent in the project, that it was begun.

The extraordinary engineering that's going into this project can be imagined from the fact that it will be tall enough "to house London's St Paul's or Paris's Notre Dame cathedrals," the EBRD says. Additionally, the project will cost 1.5 billion euros; the structure is 360ft tall and 843 feet wide - enough for a football pitch; and the entire structure will be held in place by 680,000 heavy bolts.

"Nothing like this has ever been attempted before," Don Kelly, 57, a nuclear industry veteran from Washington State, told the BBC. Kelly's team consists of foreign specialists from 24 nations. There are also hundreds of Ukrainian workers on the project, as well as French technicians who monitor radiation with former Soviet engineers and Ukrainian veterans of the 1986 disaster.

The project is completely new - and possibly dangerous - for everyone, because there had never been a nuclear wreckage before Chernobyl. For example, the workers laid eight-meter concrete foundations only after the removal of hundreds of tons of radioactive topsoil. The reactor building itself, which is far too radioactive, also poses huge health risks, yet people must work to place an arch over it. The assembly area, covered with a concrete slab to minimize radiation exposure along with vast lifting towers, is now complete, as are the excavation work and the piling of the arch's foundations.

The arch had to be put a few hundred meters away at a safer distance, and half of it is ready. When the other half is finished, the two will be clamped together and transported on special tracks to cover and seal off the reactor. The present shelter, called the sarcophagus, is rusting, putting it at risk for collapsing - it was supposed to be replaced by 2006. The repeated delays are a concern for everyone because they fear the arch might not be built in time before a major collapse. However, the area under the arch is safe enough for people to work unprotected. A few hundred meters away, they must wear masks and safety gear. The old reactor chimney must also be removed or demolished before the arch is slid in place.

The real challenge for the engineers is disposing of the lethal remains. Some have proposed that they should be melted down and transferred into chambers below. But there are fears that the cranes used in lifting the radioactive material could turn extremely radioactive as well. Evidently, disposal is going to be a huge project that may take up to 50 years.

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