A couple of days ago, one of the largest movable structures ever built was rolled into place to surround Chernobyl Unit 4, the infamous power plant in Ukraine. That plant was destroyed more than 30 years ago when it suffered a steam explosion and fire after the operators violated a number of operating procedures with many engineered safety systems turned off.
Even though the accident happened in 1986 and the areas outside of the plant have radiation levels that are safe for general accessibility, bureaucrats in the European Union decided that the concrete sarcophagus hastily erected near the time of the accident needed to be encased in a shiny new structure. In order to reduce doses for construction workers to the internationally accepted “As Low As Reasonably Achievable” (with no dollar value assigned to “reasonable”) the new structure was built several hundred meters away from the damaged reactor.
The design included massive wheels and a rail system that would allow it to be slid into place when complete.
It was quite an engineering feat. It should be a source of pride for the workers that successfully completed their assigned tasks. Taxpayers, however, were asked to pay a large bill for something that wasn’t actually needed. In era when sports complexes are publicly funded and cost roughly the same kind of money, I suppose it wasn’t such a wild way to employ hard-working, skilled people in a productive fashion.
The endeavor, however, has resulted in headlines that indicate a need for a reasonable explanation for the real hazard and the actual need for the structure.
Here is one example of the reason this piece should be useful: New high-tech shelter reminds us that Chernobyl is still deadly, thirty years after the meltdown. Sadly, that headline appears on a site called ZME Science, a publication that claims to be “a trusted and provocative source of science news and features, covering research and developments from all scientific fields.”
Here is a letter about the new confinement that was shared on one of my mailing lists. I’m republishing it here with the author’s permission.
Dear friends of clean nuclear energy,
A giant sarcophagus has been built and is now inaugurated at Chernobyl. This technical engineering feet is described here :
It is described as shielding Ukraine from the deadly dangers of radiation.
Of course most readers of the Guardian and most world leaders that agreed to finance this huge box to “keep the devil in the box” don’t know the numbers and have no precise idea of what is a dangerous level of radiation.
In fact most of them have been wrongly led, by such articles which contribute to increasing radiophobia, into believing that any (even microscopic) level of radiation is dangerous and deadly.
This of course only results from fear and ignorance. In French we say “la peur est mauvaise conseillère” (fear is a bad counsellor).
Here are my comments on this new Chernobyl sarcophagus:
This sarcophagus is certainly an admirable engineering accomplishment : it is the largest movable object ever built by humanity, but it is useless health wise.
The world is spending €1.5bn (one and a half billion euros) to protect itself from harmless levels of radiation.
This sarcophagus is intended to keep the (said to be so) devil (radiation) prisoner in a big box (well bigger than that : the biggest box ever built!).
Some journalists, and non-scientists (which includes a large number of politicians) certainly might think and will believe that it is justified to build the biggest-ever prison box at any cost, even any number of billions of euros, to keep the biggest-ever devil as a prisoner encapsulated inside it. But it is not so : in this case the devil is no devil and it is not dangerous. The money is simply and sadly wasted.
In the days that followed April 26th 1986, when the reactor with no containment was in flames during two weeks, and indeed rejecting the largest-ever amount of radiation directly into the atmosphere, levels of radiation on site at Chernobyl and directly downwind, such as the city of Prypiat, were then extremely high of course, dangerous and even deadly for some of the firemen and workers courageously working on site at the moment of the accident.
This was mainly due to radioactive iodine 131, which has completely disappeared since the summer of 1986 (its half life is 8 days).
This is not the case any more. The danger has vanished. The evil radiation has disintegrated (as radioactivity always does, by definition) with time passing.
The radiation on the Chernobyl site now, outside the molten reactor building, even without the new sarcophagus, is hardly more than a few microsieverts per hour and has no detrimental health effects. It is millions of times less than the deadly radiation levels that occurred at the moment of the accident.
Such levels of radiation are lower than natural radiation in other locations of our planet where (and rightly so, as there is no danger) nobody is building a sarcophagus to contain an imaginary devil.
For example I have myself measured 50 microsieverts per hour on the beach of Guarapari in Brazil. Not only this popular beach is not considered as a potential health danger, but in fact it is famous for its BENEFICIAL health effects. Brazilians and South Americans come from far away to benefit from the thorium rich sands of this beach.
The new sarcophagus at Chernobyl is therefore useless health wise, a vast waste of international money and nothing but the financial and physical incarnation of the huge worldwide radiophobia that resulted from the Chernobyl accident and antinuclear propaganda amplified by the press.
This money would be better spent producing medical isotopes or developing small modular reactors to power energy-starving developing countries!
President of Environmentalists For Nuclear Energy (EFN) International
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