On 26 April 1986 the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine became the site of the worst ever nuclear accident. A massive steam explosion destroyed the reactor hall of unit 4 and radioactive material was released, affecting large parts of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, but also reaching western Europe.
The incident caused huge damage in the immediate vicinity and had a severe impact beyond. The emergency services’ response took place in extremely perilous conditions under extraordinary time pressure. While early interventions led to a stabilisation of the situation, a long-term solution had yet to be developed and implemented in subsequent years.
This has been achieved. In a unique demonstration of global cooperation and solidarity, the international community and Ukraine have radically transformed the site of the 1986 accident. In November 2016 the New Safe Confinement was moved over the old sarcophagus housing the destroyed reactor 4.
The New Safe Confinement makes the site safe and allows for the dismantling of the ageing shelter and management of the radioactive waste within the shelter. Following systems installation, testing and commissioning the New Safe Confinement has now been handed over to the Ukrainian authorities and the Chernobyl Shelter Fund was closed in late 2020.
The New Safe Confinement represents an extraordinary feat of engineering. The 36,000 tonnes structure is 108 metres high, 162 metres long and has a span of 257 metres. It provides a safe working environment equipped with a heavy duty crane for the future dismantling of the shelter and waste management.
The structure was constructed by Novarka, a consortium by the French engineering companies Bouygues and Vinci. All work on site was carried out under strictest health and safety regulations by a specially trained workforce whose radiation exposure was permanently monitored. There was no single case of exposure beyond permissible limits.
The 1986 explosion caused the deaths, within weeks, of some 30 workers and firemen at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and injured many more. Its long-term impact on the health of others is the subject of debate to this day.
Some 200,000 people, including the inhabitants of the neighbouring town of Pripyat, were evacuated from the vicinity of the destroyed reactor. A 30 km (19 mile) ‘exclusion zone’ was imposed and still is in place.
The accident led to a worldwide review of nuclear safety standards and regulatory processes and the acknowledgment that international cooperation in this field is critically important. The EBRD’s involvement in nuclear safety programmes and in Chernobyl projects is a direct consequence of this.
The accident left Ukraine with a costly legacy when the country gained independence in 1991, including the cost of managing the site, the decommissioning of the three intact reactor units, the loss of arable land, health screening or support for victims.
The EBRD was tasked by the international community with managing the funds financing the efforts to transform Chernobyl into a safe and secure state. Decommissioning any nuclear power plant is a challenge. In Chernobyl, where the last unit was shut in 2000, it is further complicated by the fact that it takes place in a contaminated area. The EBRD has been assisting Ukraine to address the challenge of making Chernobyl safe and secure since it was first invited by the country and the G7 to manage dedicated donor funds in 1995.
The entire Shelter Implementation Plan cost €2.1 billion and has now been completed. It is funded by contributions from 45 countries, the European Commission and the EBRD.
The EBRD also manages the Nuclear Safety Account which finances two additional decommissioning infrastructure facilities at the site:
1) The Interim Spent Fuel Storage Facility 2 to process the spent fuel assemblies from reactors 1 to 3, place them in double walled canisters and enclose them in concrete modules for a minimum period of 100 years. This work has been carried out by the US company Holtec. The facility has successfully passed hot testing and first spent fuel canisters have been transported to their final destination. The facility cost in excess of €400 million.
2) The Liquid Radioactive Waste Treatment Plant was the first EBRD-managed project in Chernobyl, The facility retrieves highly active liquids from their current storage tanks, processes them into a solid state and moves them into containers for long-term storage. The plant is complete and fully operational.
Transforming Chernobyl is a long-term challenge. Through the EBRD-managed funds the international community together with Ukraine has created the foundations to develop and implement a national strategy for the coming decades.
More than €2 billion has been received for EBRD-managed Chernobyl projects from 45 donors. The EBRD has contributed €715 million of its own resources in support of the work to transform Chernobyl into an environmentally safe and secure site.