An obligatory stop on Chernobyl bus tours is the small visitors center, which is at the edge of a parking lot a quarter-mile from the Shelter. A big glass window provides an unobstructed view of the Shelter, but otherwise there’s not much to see. A dusty scale model of the Shelter sits next to a television playing a Novarka video of the New Safe Confinement project. Near the end of the nine-minute animation, the striped ventilation stack rising above the Shelter magically disappears as the arch glides into place.
SIP has scheduled the vent stack to be completely removed by 2014, but the job most likely won’t go quite as smoothly as it’s depicted in Novarka’s video. Dodd calls it one of the “highest-risk” projects SIP has ever managed. Risky because the vent stack is enormous, reaching higher than a 40-story building and weighing more than 300 tons. Riskier still because it’s been discharging radioactive aerosols for 26 years and towers over a fragile structure filled with nuclear waste. “If you were to drop that thing on the building, you would expose numerous people that are out here working to the contamination,” says Marsha Brown, SIP’s site-works specialist. “It could be a terrible accident.”
The plan is to cut the vent stack into seven pieces and lift them off one at a time. The most important risk factor is radiation exposure to workers. The dose rate near the vent stack is “very high, about one rem per hour,” Schmieman says. SIP is considering installing shielded walkways on the roof to dampen workers’ exposure to gamma radiation, but the men slicing up the chimney will have to wear extra gear to protect themselves from poisonous dust and smoke.
The effects of acute radiation doses are well-documented in studies of atomic-bomb survivors. We know, for instance, that a fatal dose in 100 percent of cases is 1,000 rems. The International Atomic Energy Agency attributes 28 radiation deaths to Chernobyl, mostly firemen exposed to extreme gamma radiation in the first hours of the catastrophe. No one has received a fatal dose at Chernobyl, or any other nuclear power plant, since the disaster.
The United Nations issued a report in 2005 forecasting that an additional 4,000 people who received lower doses at Chernobyl will die from cancer. The death toll is already closer to one million, according to a compilation of Russian and Ukrainian research recently published by the New York Academy of Sciences. The huge discrepancy underscores our profound lack of knowledge about what low-dose radiation does to the human body.
No regulatory institution in the world has established a “safe” dose of radiation. Every country sets its own limits. During the Fukushima disaster, Japan more than doubled its maximum dose limit for nuclear workers, simply to keep emergency operations going. The maximum allowed in Ukraine, which has one of the strictest dose standards in the world, is two rems per year (the limit is five rems per year in the U.S.). The legal limits govern how SIP and Novarka design their work plans; without shielding in place, workers at the vent stack would reach their annual dose limit in just two hours. But only certain kinds of exposure can be predicted. Although radiation levels at the vent stack and other areas of the site are well known, the amount of contaminated dust and aerosols workers will encounter is less certain. In addition to wearing dosimeters, all workers must submit to nasal swabs, urinalysis and fecal sampling to keep tabs on their dose.
Last spring, Novarka transformed the weed-choked field west of the Shelter into a busy construction site. Workers scraped off the top layer of contaminated soil, brought in clean fill to reduce radiation coming from the ground, and dug two parallel trenches running from the west end of the site to the Shelter on the east end. The trenches would hold foundations for the stainless-steel rails by which the arch will be transported to the Shelter. Each trench is 500 yards long, and the distance between them (almost 300 yards) is the same width as the arch.
By summer, cement mixers and dump trucks were rumbling across the site. The air reverberated with the piercing metallic clang of hydraulic hammers pounding steel piles into the bottoms of trenches, 396 in all. Each pile is 80 feet long and three feet in diameter; together they will support the weight of the 32,000-ton arch as it’s being built. Driving piles and digging trenches have progressed more slowly than expected. “Every time anybody does any excavation, they find stuff,” Dodd says. “Sometimes stuff is large cranes that were buried after the accident. Sometimes it’s trucks or Caterpillars. And sometimes it’s fuel-containing material.”
The explosions that destroyed Unit 4 scattered bits of highly radioactive nuclear fuel called “hot particles” all around the site. Dosimetrists discover them during routine scanning of excavated dirt. When that happens, all nearby activity stops until a worker scoops up the particle using a shovel with a 10-foot handle. “The dose rate drops very quickly as you move away from it,” says Don Kelly, SIP’s health and safety engineer. “But as you’re right beside it, or carrying it around in your pocket, it’s smoking.”
Kelly inspects the construction site every week. He carries a camera in his jacket pocket to document any safety violations he encounters. One afternoon last September, I walked with him along the north trench into the Shelter’s shadow. We paused to watch a continuous flight augur, a Caterpillar fitted with a giant corkscrew, drilling a borehole in the bottom of the trench. The process is gentler than banging steel piles into the ground, an important consideration this close to the Shelter. Seismic vibrations, which had already cracked the brick walls of a security building adjacent to the trench, might bring down the Shelter’s brittle west wall.
A loader scooped watery spoil from the borehole and dropped it into a dump truck. Kelly started snapping pictures. I asked him what was wrong. “He doesn’t have any signs,” Kelly said, pointing to the dump truck, “or a tailgate.” Chernobyl’s radiation-safety office has strict rules for transporting radioactive waste. Clean trucks can haul nothing but uncontaminated fill; dirty trucks haul only radioactive soil, and they’re supposed to have signs—and tailgates—to prevent cross-contamination. The unmarked, ungated dump truck drove off, slopping spoil on the ground the entire length of the trench.
Kelly sent a spoil sample from the trench to the lab for analysis. The lab report came back a few days later: the spoil wasn’t contaminated enough to be classified as radioactive waste. But the rules are essential to the cleanup work and to keeping workers safe. The next time around, entire swaths of the work site might become contaminated. “They’re good at making rules here, good rules, but not quite so good at following them,” Mark Fishburn had told me. “People tend to get away with what they can.”single page