After 30 years it is now becoming obvious just how much actual damage was caused by the Chernobyl disaster - the worst civilian nuclear power reactor accident in history. The original U.N. report was that fewer than 100 people (actually about 70, or as many as die every two days by gun violence in the U.S.) died directly in the wake of the accident, most of them firefighters. In fact, few people realize that the other reactors at the installation kept running for years after the accident. This ignorance is one reason Americans are so afraid of nuclear power - no one has ever died due to a civilian nuclear power accident in North America.

New Safe Confinement

The first confinement for the radioactive hell of the melted down reactor was a quick and dirty concrete shell termed the sarcophagus which was built by the military, but it was never intended to be the final solution. Now, after years in construction on a rail system adjacent to reactor 4, the final confinement structure is finished and was slowly rolled into place over the destroyed reactor and its concrete confinement. The new building, or New Safe Confinement (NSC), is, according to the November 25 issue of Science magazine, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a 25,000 Ton structure which will withstand a magnitude 6 earthquake. The chernobyl region in the Ukraine is not a major earthquake zone.

Big problem, gets big fix

The NSC was built with technical or monetary contributions from 40 countries and took 10,000 workers to complete. At 354 tall the finished structure is taller than the Statue of Liberty and is 843 feet wide at the base but while it is designed to contain any radioactive material from the destroyed reactor, the New Safe Confinement it isn’t a sealed tomb, rather it is a working space which will allow technicians to begin the difficult and extremely dangerous task of decommissioning reactor 4.

The high tech confinement building is designed to keep dangerous material from getting out of the reactor area, as opposed to the containment structures on most reactors which are intended to prevent radioactive gases from escaping. With a 100-year lifespan after which the 600-plus foot long NSC should be ready to be removed after reactor 4 has been cleaned up.

Keeping all the radioactive material confined requires maintaining a sealed environment in the extreme weather conditions of the Ukraine and one of the features which the structure uses to maintain this seal is a 40 foot pressurized gap between the outermost shell and the inner shell of the confinement building.

Just how bad was Chernobyl?

Although it spread a lot of radioactivity and frightened a lot of people it is important to remember that burning coal also releases radioactive gasses to the atmosphere - far more in total than all nuclear reactors combined. Today there are still people living in the old town of Chernobyl or surrounding farms within a few miles of the reactor and they have been there for the 30 years since the accident.

Research has shown that since most people left the area the wildlife has returned in large numbers which are living happily in the 4300 square kilometer exclusion zone. While radiation isn’t exactly good for wildlife, it turns out that it is far less dangerous than human habitation.