I've probably visited Ukraine a dozen times over the past 20 years, but never before had I been to the Chornobyl nuclear power plant. The melt-down and explosion that occurred on April 26, 1986, killed dozens of Ukrainian plant workers and firefighters, spread radioactive fallout over a wide area, and left the very daunting task of dealing with its human health and environmental consequences to future generations.
Since the mid-1990's, the international community -- primarily through funds raised within the framework of the G-8 and projects managed by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) -- has worked side-by-side with Ukraine to try to contain the destroyed reactor and safely store nuclear fuel and other materials at the plant site. The U.S. government has already contributed about $240 million towards these efforts, adding an additional $123 million earlier this year. Given that my job as Coordinator of U.S. Assistance to Europe and Eurasia makes me responsible for overseeing those funds, it was time for me to see Chornobyl with my own eyes. A site visit would also allow me to get a sense of the progress being made on the major construction projects we are funding, which are slated for completion by the summer of 2015.
To be honest, I was a little apprehensive about going to a place so closely associated in popular culture with radioactive contamination. As we approached the "exclusion zone" -- a 30-kilometer region around the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant (ChNPP) closed to human habitation -- I half expected to see some kind of post-apocalyptic wasteland. As we offered our documentation to the Interior Ministry troops manning the checkpoint, I could see only a dense forest lining both sides of the road ahead of us. A kilometer or so further, one of my colleagues spotted an open meadow through a break in the trees and what appeared to be a herd of grazing animals. On closer inspection, we discovered that these were the famous wild Przewalski horses, an endangered species that was released into the exclusion zone several years ago and are reportedly thriving. Wolves, bison and other large mammals are also doing well. In fact, the exclusion zone has become a sort of nature preserve, a living example of how nature reasserts itself when people disappear.
Arriving at the plant, we first met with the Project Management Unit (PMU), which was established by the ChNPP to oversee implementation of the engineering projects underway at the plant, and which is also answerable to the EBRD. The EBRD serves as the trust fund and agent for the many international donors -- including the United States -- who have contributed money towards Chernobyl projects. The PMU Managing Director, Laurin Dodd, gave us an update on the two major projects underway at the site. First, there's the construction of the "New Safe Confinement" or NSC. This huge arched dome will "contain" Reactor 4, which melted down and exploded in 1986. NSC surely ranks as one of the biggest and most complex engineering challenges in the history of mankind. When completed, it will be one of the largest "free volume" spaces in the world, rising higher than the Louisiana Superdome. To minimize radiation exposure for the workers constructing this dome, it is being built 180 meters away from the reactor itself. After the dome is constructed, it will be pulled with large, multi-stranded steel cables and slid into place over the reactor.
Viewed from a safe distance, the construction site today looks like an enormous concrete platform with a few metal towers stuck into it. Workers in bulky orange and white protective suits, wearing respirators and hardhats, mill around the site. Much of the past few years have been spent in design work and site preparation. The technical challenges are daunting. The site is full of abandoned machinery, discarded metal and concrete, much of it buried immediately after the disaster and all of it highly radioactive.
The second project being funded by international donors is the construction of a new "Interim Storage Facility," which is intended to safely hold, for at least the next 100 years, the nuclear fuel from the other three reactors that were not destroyed in 1986.
I had a long conversation and a nice lunch with Igor Gramotkin, General Director of ChNPP and, for the past six years, the man responsible for maintaining the overall facility. When asked what was the biggest potential obstacle to the successful completion of the NSC and ISF projects was, he answered without hesitation, "keeping the many partners working well together." As complex as the engineering and construction challenges may be, NSC and ISF also require managing relationships among a lot of different players: the 24 different international donors, the EBRD, the PMU, the ChNPP, two major contractors (the French Novarka for NSC and the American Holtec for ISF), a multitude of sub-contractors, the Ukrainian Ministry of Emergency Situations, and a number of other Ukrainian state agencies that play a role in approving various stages of the project. As is often the case, the human and organizational challenges are just as important, perhaps more so, than the technical ones.
Though our visit was mostly forward-looking, focused on efforts to mitigate the consequences of the Chornobyl disaster for future generations, there were frequent reminders of past tragedy. On the way back to Kyiv, we stopped in Pripyat -- the "ghost town" of the Chornobyl accident. Established just 15 years before the incident, Pripyat only existed because of the nuclear plant, and was home to many of the plant's workers. Its 50,000 residents weren't evacuated until 36 hours after the accident, and initially were told they would be returning in three days. As a result, they left behind many of their personal belongings. Today, its concrete apartment blocks are empty and dark, shabby ruins frozen in time -- sort of a Soviet Pompeii. In the main square, moss and shrubs grow through the cracked sidewalks; trees grow through the roof of the six-story "Polissya Hotel." In the Palace of Culture, on the third floor, there is a huge gymnasium where the soccer goals stand empty, and the wooden basketball floor crumbles away underfoot. Glass from the palace's once huge picture windows, shattered into a thousand pieces, is now spread across the floor. Looking out through those twisted window frames now, one sees in the distance a giant Ferris wheel. Scheduled to open on May Day 1986, shortly after the accident, the Ferris wheel was painted a festive red, in keeping with the spirit of the international workers' day. Needless to say, the citizens of Pripyat never had the chance to ride it.
I left all the more resolved to see the Chornobyl projects through to their conclusion. Together with our international partners and the Ukrainian government, we must finish the job.