‘Largest moveable land-based structure’ unveiled to confine Chernobyl debris

A view inside the “new safe confinement” shelter Credit: Ukrainian Presidential Press Office/AP

A £2 billion project to confine radioactive debris at the nuclear reactor that exploded in Chernobyl in 1986 has been unveiled.

The structure – which took nine years to build – was constructed to secure the molten reactor core and 200 tons of radioactive material at the site.

Officials have described the shelter as the largest moveable land-based structure ever built, with a span of 257 metres and a total weight of over 36,000 metric tons.

The abandoned city of Prypyat some 3 kilometres from Chernobyl. Credit: Ukrainian Presidential Press Office/AP

Reactor Number 4 at the plant in what was then Soviet Ukraine exploded and burned on April 26, 1986, spewing radioactive dust across Europe in the world’s worst nuclear accident.

Thirty workers died either from the explosion or from acute radiation sickness within several months.

About 600,000 people had exposure to radiation at elevated levels while fighting the fire at the plant or working to clean up the contamination.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, centre, visits the abandoned city of Prypyat. Credit: Ukraine Presidential Press Office/AP

The accident exposed millions in the region to dangerous levels of radiation and forced a permanent evacuation of about 350,000 people from hundreds of towns and villages in Ukraine and Belarus.

The disaster’s eventual death toll has been subject to speculation and dispute, but the World Health Organisation’s cancer research arm has estimated that 9,000 people were to die of exposure-related cancer and leukaemia if Chernobyl disaster’s health effects follow a similar pattern to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings.

The new confinement structure – opened by Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskiy – was designed to safeguard radioactive debris and prevent further crumbling of the reactor.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, left, listens to an engineer as he visits the “new safe confinement” shelter. Credit: Ukrainian Presidential Press Office/AP

Deputy project manager Victor Zalizetskyi, who has been part of construction and repairs at the Chernobyl plant since 1987, said he was “filled with pride” that he got to work on a job “that has such a big importance for all humankind.”

However, Mr Zalizetskyi previously expressed concern that war-torn Ukraine might struggle to cover the maintenance costs for the reactor’s new enclosure.

He noted that costly and complicated work such as dismantling unstable sections of the power plant still needs to be done.

“It looks like Ukraine will be left alone to deal with this structure,” he said. “The work is not done yet, and we need to think about how to finance this project in the future.”