So, as the clock ticked past midnight on Friday 16th October a small but noteworthy milestone happened. After 23 years and 354 days the Chernobyl Shelter Fund received Assembly non-objection for closure. I felt that, as the last ring binder file is archived and the dosimeters recalibrated, I could not pass up the opportunity to share some final nostalgic reflections about our achievements on Chernobyl and the New Safe Confinement – one of the 50 most influential global projects of the last century – in the words of the US Project Management Institute.
The superlatives around Chernobyl are well rehearsed. The world’s worst nuclear accident, the largest ever international collaboration on nuclear safety, the most contaminated place on the globe, the heaviest land based moveable structure in construction history, and even (at over 2.5 million hits) the Bank’s largest ever exposure on social media, (even if it was on Ladbible.com, perhaps not our, err, typical media outlet!) .
But for most people on the project, Chernobyl spoke more in emotions than stark facts. Passion, patience, frustration, exhaustion, stress, laughter, wonderment – and above all a fantastic sense of pride and achievement.
The project engaged over 6,000 people over its construction history, and I would vouch that for many (certainly including myself) it was a simply unmatchable career highlight. New Safe Confinement sliding and completion in the words of Hans Blix, our Fund Chairman, healed a scar that has blighted the region since that fateful night in April 1986. It is certainly not the end of the Chernobyl story.
The complex decommissioning challenges ahead will take many decades and will require continued dedication, commitment and international collaboration. However, its completion enables Ukraine, for the first time since the accident, to look forward to the future in the knowledge that they can deal with the deadly inventory of the destroyed reactor safely and securely.
But the completion of the Fund also allows us to consider the role of the international community. For many first time visitors Chernobyl is a haunted, desolate place. I simply don’t share that view. To visit the site and witness what can happen when 45 different nations come together with a shared aim and unified voice means that, for me, Chernobyl is an inspirational place. A place of hope to see what a truly shared international vision can deliver. In these disparate and troubled times that is a message that should be hailed from the rooftops. And that the EBRD is central to that message is to our eternal credit.
From a personal perspective, I will certainly miss the Shelter Fund. It has taught me so many things. A love of salo and pickled tomatoes, a deep and enduring respect for the optimism, professionalism and determination of our Ukrainian friends and colleagues at Chernobyl and an awe of what can be achieved with true shared vision in the face of seemingly impossible challenges.
However, one of the most surprising personal journeys for me has been my own mini-epiphany from someone decidedly agnostic about nuclear power, to a fervent believer in the role nuclear energy can and must play in a low carbon future. Strange for someone who has spent the last ten years dealing with the consequences of the world’s worst ever nuclear accident?
One of Chernobyl’s least recognised but most important legacies was to transform the global nuclear industry from a somewhat insular, defensive, secretive and arrogant industry to one where transparency, safety, technological excellence, peer review and international collaboration is in its DNA.
The Chernobyl accident was the catalyst for an international revolution in the management, oversight and regulation of nuclear power, backed by global conventions such as the Nuclear Safety Convention. To condemn the modern nuclear industry because of Chernobyl is no more logical than to ban cruise ships because of the Titanic, or stop all football matches because of Hillsborough.
Nuclear power is the largest single provider of low carbon energy in the Banks’ countries of operation. It is, of course, not the single solution to a low carbon future, but almost all of the UN International Panel on Climate Change pathways to achieving climate change objectives contain allowances for increased use of nuclear energy. Or perhaps more succinctly, in the words of International Atomic Energy Agency Director General, Raphael Grossi - “it is illogical and ascientific to be worried about climate change at the same time as discarding a clean, low-carbon emitting energy such as nuclear."
But as we close the Fund, perhaps we should finish with a tip of our hats to those who started it all. I suspect that the Bank’s management in 1997 would have been forgiven if they had looked into their crystal ball when asked to set up the Chernobyl Shelter Fund, gulped and looked away. It has been a task unparalleled in challenges, complexity and ambition that might have daunted many lesser organisations. I am eternally grateful that, back in the days, imbued with that same sense of commitment and ambition that the Bank has now, we stepped up to the challenge of the Chernobyl Shelter Fund. It has led to some of the Bank’s proudest moments, and our most enduring legacy.
And of course, none of this would be possible without the greatest team of EBRD people who made this all happen. You are the best!