A new test site in Chernobyl: a nuclear or a garbage one?
A new test site in Chernobyl: a nuclear or a garbage one?

They began to import garbage from all over Ukraine to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone on purpose. Their motivation is to create a modern ecological enterprise instead of the old nuclear test site. The management started such an “experiment” in Ukraine just recently, in November 2020. Since then, more than 1,000 tons of garbage has been brought to the Lelev landfill. Representatives of the Agency for the Management of the Exclusion Zone share their opinions on the strategy of the new landfill near the Chernobyl NPP.

Early morning in the Chernobyl Zone … Landfill Lelev … People in green jackets are digging through the debris that lies on the ground. They collect plastic bottles and put them in bags. As a result, a heap of selected plastic gradually grows in the opposite direction. This is how work on sorting garbage at the Lelev solid waste landfill looks like today.

Chernobyl residents and self-settlers are dead set against the collection of garbage from all over Ukraine. Well, we can understand it. Most of them live according to the Soviet stereotypes. A nuclear test site is bad. But a garbage site isn’t better. They believe that the authorities want to turn the Exclusion Zone into an uncontrolled dump. So, its residents aren’t sure that the issue of sorting at the future landfill will be of fundamental importance. In fact, there are many doubts about who and how will control it.

The run down landfill, located between Chernobyl and Pripyat, has been operating since 1996. Its area is almost 10 hectares. After the accident, the village of Lelev, located 8 kilometers from the ChNPP, became its location. The villagers left. Then, the settlement was removed from the register and practically razed to the ground. So, it’s impossible to get here without permission and a special pass. The landfill is a territory without free access.

“Over the 25 years of its existence, only the waste generated by the enterprises of the Chernobyl zone has been brought to the Lelev landfill. This is a trench type landfill, rather outdated technology,” Andrei Plyatsko, the first deputy head of the State agencies for the management of the exclusion zone, says to us.

This landfill hasn’t got any modernizations since 1996. Moreover, nobody has used the latest technologies here. A bulldozer is used to dig holes 10-12 meters deep and 60-65 meters long for burial of garbage at the landfill. Nobody knows how much garbage has accumulated in the ground over the 25 years of the landfill’s existence.

Landfill modernization

In November 2020, an experiment began at the State Agency of Ukraine for the Management of the Exclusion Zone. There was a decision to bring waste from outside the Chernobyl zone. The ultimate goal is to modernize the way of work and build a modern waste processing plant in the forest. Landfill modernization is primarily about sorting.

About 5000 m3 of waste is generated annually from the activities of enterprises and contractors in the Exclusion Zone. Ukrainian law prohibits its burial without preliminary sorting. The budget of the state specialized enterprise Radon Association, which deals with radioactive waste, doesn’t provide money for sorting.

In order to organize a separate garbage collection, we need to implement this process here. Unfortunately, we have no money for that. How to get out of a predicament? Only to earn the necessary money ourselves,” Andriy Plyatsko says. Therefore, the State agencies for the management of the exclusion zone decided to import pre-sorted waste from other regions of Ukraine at a commercial rate.

“It’s necessary to learn whether we can take the trash to make money from it. All that we earn is used for the future reconstruction of the landfill. We strive to organize the correct modern waste recycling here. Today’s technologies took place back in the 80s just to bring it and throw into a pit. Considering the current environmental situation, it’s no longer possible to work this way,” Plyatsko claims.

According to him, they’ve begun to work seriously on the Lelev landfill just now. They made topography and geodesy, plan to use control probes and drills in different areas. It’s necessary to find out whether there are obsolete nuclear burial sites.

The next step is to make an analysis and figure out whether there is an economic component to import garbage from outside the Chernobyl zone. We hope that the proceeds from potential waste acceptance and recycling will help in building a new modern landfill. If hopes are justified, the next stage of modernization, a discussion with society, will start then. The project will be brought up for general discussion. The management will hear all the proposals and settle controversial issues. After that, there will be a competition to attract investors who want to deal with this project.

A new test site: an experiment or a step into the future?

The layout of the project, which the authorities want to bring to life, consists of three sections. Well, the first is for receiving and sorting waste. The second is for composting it. And the third one is about the place where to bury the remains that can neither be composted nor redone. This technology will reduce the volume of waste disposal by about 20%. It will allow us to get compost for the reclamation of a contaminated land in the Exclusion Zone.

Nowadays, the Zone has many lands devastated by fires. These are big areas where nothing will grow for a long time. Nature needs time to fully recover. The agency cannot say for sure how long the experiment with the new test site will last. According to preliminary estimates, to get an objective sample may take up to six months. In November this year, about 1000 tons of garbage were brought to the landfill and sorted.

“There is a market today that dictates its own rules. They are ready to pay us money so that we can accept garbage. We set a quote and accept it. It’s not very important for us where a car is from: Kiev, Lviv, Zhitomir, Odessa or Ivano-Frankivsk. The main thing for us is to understand what’s in it and what volume of secondary raw materials we will eventually receive. This is the economy,” Andrei Plyatsko states.

A dump site in Chernobyl remains in question

The first results of the experiment will appear in the first quarter of 2021. Then, it will become clear whether there is any point in bringing garbage to the landfill from outside the Exclusion Zone. If the result is negative, the experiment on the new project will be terminated.

Today, LLC Consult-Svityaz, founded in 2008, has taken part in sorting garbage at the Lelev landfill. Its main task at this stage of the experiment is collection of non-hazardous waste, wholesale trade in waste and scrap. Its competence also includes the disposal of sorted materials, the treatment and disposal of non-hazardous waste.

There are four people who take part in surface selection at the landfill nowadays. They manually select the garbage, transfer and weigh it. Now, they bring garbage to the landfill several times a day. In the future, the landfill plans to accept only that waste from which you can get as much plastic as possible. The organic matter remaining after the “extraction” will no longer harm the environment.

This applies to everyone

Meanwhile, active residents of Chernobyl are trying to draw attention of the media and concerned citizens to the story with the test site. Now about 100 self-settlers live in the exclusion zone. Their fears are logical and understandable. The exclusion zone is a closed object. So, it will be extremely difficult to control the waste sorting process. There is a risk that toxic substances will again enter the soil due to someone’s negligence.

“This problem has arisen not only in Chernobyl. It affects the whole world,” Leonid Struk, a resident of Chernobyl, claims. If it’s necessary to recycle garbage, go on. We don’t mind. But they must do it properly, according to modern environmental protection technologies. In the meantime, there is a threat that anything will be hidden in the Exclusion Zone. Is there not enough radiation for us? Do you still need to clog everything around? This applies to each of us. Since the repository appeared within the Exclusion Zone, it won’t be possible to control it properly. Checking the hidden things there is simply not realistic. The exclusion zone is about regime and admission.”

What do environmentalists say? In their opinion, the soil at the site of the future landfill is similar to that in the Red Forest. There is no professional waterproofing according to the new environmental standards. Groundwater will come into contact with waste that must be buried at the landfill. Is there a risk that something toxic will get there? The poisoned water will go into the Pripyat River, into the Kiev Sea, and then into the cups of 35 million Ukrainians. Well, there is no affirmative answer yet about such fears. But the State Agency assures that their target in a project meets environmental safety standards.

“Yeah, it’s a dirty production. This is a secure facility,” experts of the State Agency of the Exclusion Zone say. However, each of us produces garbage everywhere. And in order to cope with it later, we need territories to do that. There is a secluded area, completely protected by natural barriers from the outside world. In fact, the landfill doesn’t bother anyone. Why not use the opportunities of this territory?”

If you invest, then in sorting before the landfill stage

The problem of garbage and its recycling isn’t unique to Ukraine. This happens all over the world. Even if sorting waste becomes a daily practice in Ukraine, we still can’t refuse certain materials. To do this, we must have a certified sanitary landfill, but not an incinerator. It’s even worse because it forms super-toxic ash. In the future, we will also need to put this ash somewhere or bury in the ground.

It’s much more expedient to rely on a sanitary landfill with a special outlet for methane. Only in this case, harmful organic matter won’t enter the soil. It needs a separate sorting. Such landfills already exist in the world, but there is not a single similar one in Ukraine yet.

There is a need to sort garbage before being delivered to the landfill. Sorting it out on the landfill is pointless. Therefore, if you invest, then it’s more expedient in the sorting infrastructure to the landfill. A shocking fact: people who take bottles and packaging from garbage cans support the recycling system. 5% of the garbage recycled in Ukraine now is largely due to the informal sector of garbage collectors.

This practice remained mainly in the countries of Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America. There is a separate collection system in advanced countries. So, they simply don’t need garbage collectors. Over time, any waste will decompose into what it was made of. For example, plastic becomes micro-plastic, made up of the chemicals. All this gets into the soil and water. As a result, we use what we throw away.

The Chernobyl accident has become a way of perception of concepts related to environmental safety. It’s still unknown what Lelev will eventually turn into in the Exclusion Zone. Will it become the first sanitary landfill in Ukraine or an uncontrolled dump? In any case, local residents aren’t sure about the successful completion of the next “experiment” at the ChNPP.