Everyone has some painful days in the life to remember. And there are many such dates in the history of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. However, the most sorrowful of them wasn’t even on April 26, 1986, but on December 15, 2000. On this day, the last power unit of the ChNPP stopped its work. 20 years have passed since that time, but there is a reason to look back.
Ukraine has embarked on a stage-by-stage decommissioning of the plant two years after the Chernobyl accident. Ukrainian parliamentarians adopted the corresponding Law on December 11, 1998. It was approved by the IAEA, the European Commission and the US government. In turn, they also provided assurance about financing of the ChNPP conservation. But in 1998, it became obvious that it was unacceptable to go on putting the lives and health of the station’s 9,000 employees at risk. Moreover, there was a need in huge investments to carry out a full modernization of the power plant. But even with such help, the territory of the Chernobyl Zone had no chance tofor almost 400 years.
Ukraine started the phase of reconstruction of the affected territories after the completion of the main measures to eliminate the consequences of the accident. There was a need to find a way out to make the remains of the 4th power unit environmentally safe. The sarcophagus, immediately built over the destroyed reactor by the end of 1986, was a temporary solution. It could solve the problem of radiation leakage only by half, waiting for a new opportunity to break out. Slots and cracks in the structure were visible to the naked eye. The walls just crumbled under the weight of concrete. Well, that’s understandable: the sarcophagus was built in haste.
But it’s stupid to blame the builders for the fact that the original Shelter didn’t fulfill its function. Working in 1986 with the increased radiation background, the builders did the impossible. Shelter appeared over the destroyed reactor in record time. But then it was a top priority. Moreover, the builders managed to hide the main source of radiation. But it had to be hidden much more reliably so that the “time bomb”, radiation, didn’t break out from the ruins of the exploded reactor. And there was a need in huge financial resources to build a super-reliable shelter, which the country didn’t have.
Ukraine is a buffer zone
In June 2000, Kyiv was preparing for meeting of the US President Bill Clinton. Then Clinton and Kuchma signed a statement saying that the Chernobyl nuclear power plant would finish its work on December 15, 2000. Moreover, Clinton announced at the signing ceremony that the US would provide an additional $78 million for the Chernobyl Shelter Fund. European parliamentarians also gave their financial guarantees for participation in the conservation of the NPP under the condition of its closure.
Clinton’s last visit meant that Ukraine should continue to function as a buffer between the West and Russia. The US President made it clear that he sees Ukraine as deeply integrated into European and Euro-Atlantic priorities. In addition, the Euro-Atlantic perspective of Ukraine should be preserved regardless of how relations between Russia and the West develop.
The day before the official closing ceremony, the President Kuchma arrived at the ChNPP. Communication with the station staff was a bit strained, but generally quite warm. Everyone understood that the decision to close the station was hard not only for nuclear scientists, but also for the President. He assured the staff that each employee would get social guarantees.
The official closing ceremony of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant began on December 15, 2000, at 1 p.m. Long before that, on November 30, 1996, the first power unit finally stopped working, and on March 15, 1999 – the second. The closure of the ChNPP was broadcast on the teleconference ChNPP – the National Palace “Ukraine”. The emergency protection key AZ-5 stopped the reactor of the third power unit of the at 1-3 p.m. during streaming. Since that moment, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant has stopped generating electricity.
“… Not a single threat emanates from Ukrainian anymore”. This message of the President Kuchma, addressed to the world community, became the key one at the time of his speech at the closing of the ChNPP. Furthermore, this was a direct hint that Ukraine had fulfilled its obligations. The turn to fulfill their obligations came to those who guaranteed a financial support in matters of conservation of the ChNPP. A phased launch of mechanisms for international financial participation had begun to modernize the Shelter object. It took almost 20 years to obtain its first results, the purpose of which was the environmental safety of the ChNPP.
As you can see, the decommissioning of the ChNPP was going gradually. As a result, the plant didn’t lose its potential after the accident. After the disaster, despite its devastating consequences, the 1st and 2nd units could go on operating. They worked for whole day after the accident. Only the 3rd power unit, technically connected with the destroyed 4th, stopped operating immediately on the night of the accident.
Later, it was necessary to solve the issues of resuming the operation of the first 3 power units literally “from the beginning”. All forces took part in the rapid decontamination of these units and the resumption of the Chernobyl NPP. These processes took place in step with the work on the conservation of the destroyed 4th power unit.
The decontamination of the first two power units took place at the end of June 1986. A part of the third power unit was deactivated a month later. Consequently, the radiation dose significantly decreased in the engine room. This contributed to further improvement of the radiation situation at the operating power units. Moreover, the situation at the first two power units stabilized when there was an end in construction of the Shelter facility. From that moment on, the radiation situation at the ChNPP came to the established standards.
Restoration work at the 3rd power unit took much more time and physical sources. All the technical equipment – pipes, ducts, cables – had the strongest radiation background. At first, all the equipment had to be dismantled, and then, after decontamination of the premises, a new one had to be installed. A protective separating wall was built between the 3rd and 4th blocks in order to minimize the radiation background.
From October 1, 1986, all three surviving power units started operation on the 1st day of each month. The building of protective barriers at the ChNPP finished exactly one year later. This marked the beginning of the transition of the station personnel to a non-shift method of work. Well, the first stage of the elimination of the consequences of the accident came to its end. It took thousands of liquidators’ lives, ruined hundreds of destinies and destroyed dozens of villages. However, against sometimes common sense, the country has demonstrated to the world its ability to withstand disaster during this time.
The second stage is the radiation safety of the life of the population
The beginning of 1988 became the start of the second phase of work to eliminate the consequences of the accident. It included preventing the spread of radionuclides from the zone of radioactive contamination. It was necessary to carry out the reburial of solid radioactive waste. The next task of the second stage was to create conditions in the affected region for a radiation-free life of the population.
According to the plan, the second stage would revive the national economy in the resettled territories. The final phase of the second stage was the decommissioning of the ChNPP. As at December 15, 9,000 employees worked at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Today there are less than 2,400 of them left.
Did Ukraine have another way out? As part of the contractual obligations prescribed in the Memorandum of Understanding between Ukraine and the G7 countries, no. The Chernobyl question in it was rhetorical: the unconditional decommissioning of the ChNPP. Some experts believe that theoretically there was still another option – the way taken in Latvia. There, the Ignalina NPP stopped its work by creating a special fund that accumulated costs received from the sale of electricity to consumers.
But they chose a more radical way for the ChNPP. One of the most profitable enterprises instantly became unnecessary. By switching to state funding, the ChNPP started to depend completely on state budget funds. However, only state costs weren’t enough to modernize power units. Nevertheless, even taking into account the meager budget investments, nuclear scientists managed to achieve a lot in 20 years.
The main result of almost two decades of hard work of the Chernobyl employees is the New Safe Confinement. Its opening in September 2019 launched a new stage of work on the conservation of the nuclear power plant. Nowadays, about 500 systems have been decommissioned at the ChNPP, or are in the process of conservation. Some decommissioned systems have been dismantled or are in the process of being dismantled. Works on the conservation of the ChNPP are taking place within the framework of the plans. They will continue on the site for at least another three decades, until 2064.