Later this year, the largest movable structure on earth—essentially a colossal steel tomb shaped like an oversized airplane hangar—is scheduled to begin its slow journey along a rail system, traveling at a glacial pace of 33 feet an hour. Its destination: the crumbling ruins of Chernobyl’s reactor number four, which, 30 years after the worst nuclear meltdown in history, continues to ooze radiation like a wound that refuses to heal.
The “New Safe Confinement” is financed in large part by the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development, and when it’s hermetically sealed around the destroyed reactor, it will begin the process of burying—metaphorically, at least—an environmental catastrophe of inconceivable magnitude.
The project, of course, doesn’t bury the devastating long-term effects of the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe: hundreds of villages abandoned forever, a landmass the size of Luxembourg rendered uninhabitable for centuries, untold thousands killed or sickened by cancer, hundreds of billions of dollars in economic damage.
Nor, for that matter, has the legacy of Chernobyl managed to bury the nuclear industry in Ukraine. By the year 2020, 12 of the country’s Soviet-era reactors (out of a total of 15) will have reached the end of their 30-year design lifetimes, but instead of developing plans to shut down the aging fleet, Ukraine is upgrading the facilities with the intent of extending the reactors’ lifetimes by extending their operating licenses.
Lifetime extension of nuclear power plants is a process currently taking place across the entire world. Many of the world’s nuclear reactors have reached or are soon to reach the end of their design lifetimes, forcing governments to make difficult economic and environmental decisions about what role nuclear power plays in the era of climate change.
Proponents of nuclear energy often present a litany of reasons why lifetime extensions make sense: Unlike coal and gas, nuclear power plants have a small carbon footprint; though expensive to build, nuclear power plants are cheap to run; and, nuclear boosters say, the math behind the original 25-to-40-year licenses given to nuclear reactors wasn’t based on any real assessment of reactor safety.
Given the scale of the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters, however, environmentalists are worried about an industry that, as Greenpeace USA Senior Nuclear Policy Analyst Jim Riccio put it to me, has a track record of “one meltdown per decade.” Nuclear critics point to essential parts of a reactor that are at increased risk of failure as the unit ages. Ukrainian anti-nuclear activists say one reactor that has already had its lifetime extended could embrittle and develop dangerous cracks in the all-important and irreplaceable reactor vessel—a charge the country’s nuclear regulator and state nuclear company deny.
Aside from long-term wear and tear, there are other factors that Ukrainian environmentalists say make extended lifetimes unacceptably hazardous: several emergencies at nuclear power plants, including one this past November that a spokesperson for the national energy distributor described as “very dangerous”; a revolving door between the country’s regulatory agency and the state-run nuclear power company that activists say compromises the agency’s integrity; and the location of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in Ukraine’s southeast, just over 120 miles away from the frontline of Ukraine’s ongoing conflict with Russia.
The problem that environmentalists face, however, is that while the nuclear industry has continued to operate in the 30 years since Chernobyl, the corresponding anti-nuclear movement in Ukraine has withered and all but died.
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For Olexi Pasyuk, 1992 was a wild year. As a hippie first-year chemistry student who started university in Kiev just weeks after Ukraine gained independence from the former Soviet Union, Pasyuk was drawn in by the city’s revolutionary zeitgeist and wild concerts without any police presence.
“It was a great time to be a student and an activist,” he remembers wistfully. The dogmatic edifice of Soviet communism had fallen away, he says, leaving in its place a vast plain of ideological ruins upon which young Ukrainians felt they could begin to build a new world. And for Pasyuk, one thing was clear: That new world would be free of the dangers of nuclear power.
In the years since Chernobyl, the disaster had redefined the psychic landscape: Tens of thousands of Ukrainians had been permanently resettled from the radioactive exclusion zone in north-central Ukraine; hundreds of thousands had been sent to work cleaning up the contamination; the new government had spent a shocking 15 percent of its first national budget on Chernobyl expenditures. And anti-nuclear sentiment was in the air.
In 1989, the anti-nuclear environmental group Zeleny Svit (Green World) became the first officially recognized independent organization in Soviet Ukraine. That same year, the group helped organize massive demonstrations in Kiev, where tens of thousands took to the streets to protest, among other things, nuclear power and the cataclysmic effects of Chernobyl. Then, in 1990, they successfully pushed candidates running in newly allowed local elections to oppose nuclear power, culminating in Parliament’s surprise declaration of a five-year moratorium on the construction of any new nuclear power plants. In 1991, the Soviet Union fell, aided in part by the political fallout from the Chernobyl accident, which Mikhail Gorbachev has since said “opened the possibility of much greater freedom of expression, to the point that the system as we knew it could no longer continue.”
Pasyuk had previously been part of the official Soviet-initiated Nature Conservation Society, but was looking for a something that “had some meaning rather than drinking beer.” Luckily for him, Greenpeace had just come to Ukraine, and had set up its office in the Hotel Kyiv, right next to Parliament. Before long he was volunteering daily with the organization.
Pasyuk grew up alongside the anti-nuclear movement in Ukraine, beginning from those first wonderstruck days as a Greenpeace activist. Little did he know, however, that he was joining the anti-nuclear movement at the beginning of a long decline. The unprecedented protests of 1989 were so massive because anti-nuclear activism was so closely tied to anti-Soviet sentiment. Once Ukraine gained its independence, nuclear reactors became essential to providing the fragile new country with a desperately needed source of energy.
What’s more, skyrocketing inflation and a deep economic crisis left many Ukrainians living in poverty as the 1990s wore on. “People were basically concerned about getting food every day rather than being in a political movement,” he said. “There was nothing on the shelves.”
In a way, the situation is similar today. The ongoing war in the east, the annexation of Crimea, and the subsequent loss of Russia as Ukraine’s largest trading partner have caused another massive economic crisis. The smoldering conflict has also caused a coal shortage, meaning nuclear power now supplies more than 50 percent of Ukraine’s electricity, making the aging nuclear reactors essential to the country’s power grid. When Ukraine’s Zaporizhia Nuclear Power Station—the largest nuclear power plant in Europe—shut down in 2014 after a minor accident affecting power output, the country experienced rolling blackouts during the month of December.
Today, just as before, nuclear power also touches on the central concern that has always been at the heart of independent Ukraine’s politics since those very first protests: freedom from Russian influence. Ukraine has long been heavily dependent on Russia for its energy needs, and some politicians believe nuclear energy will allow Ukraine to be energy independent in the future.
“The first thing we can be proud of is energy independence,” President Petro Poroshenko said during a visit to one of the country’s nuclear power plants in January. “Only a year ago the share of nuclear energy accounted for 48 percent and was steadily falling. In less than a year we have increased it from 48 percent to over 55 percent.”
Pasyuk, however, says that much of the talk about energy independence just isn’t true. “I think now we are losing some of the environmental people, who are now considering nuclear power as a real alternative to Russia,” he says. “Although that’s crazy!”
The vast majority of Ukraine’s nuclear fuel for reactors comes from the Russian company TVEL, and although the country has begun diversifying its fuel source by experimenting with fuel from the American nuclear-power company Westinghouse Electric, Ukraine still uses TVEL fuel for 13 of the country’s 15 reactors. The country also still relies on Russia for disposing of its spent nuclear fuel.
In years past, Pasyuk might have helped organize a march or a banner drop to draw attention to this contradiction. Gone, though, are the days of popular protests and big publicity stunts.
Pasyuk is now 42, with a boyish face framed by the kind of long beard that wouldn’t be out of place in Bushwick or the Mission District. He works for a small environmental organization called the National Ecological Centre of Ukraine (NECU). Pasyuk’s colleague Iryna Holovko, the group’s energy campaigner, told me that the NECU’s last big anti-nuclear protest was in 2012 when it worked with Greenpeace to hang a giant banner across from the offices of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development: “EBRD, looking for safety? Help close old reactors!”
“Before the Maidan, you could get enough attention, even with a smaller protest,” Holovko says, referring to the country’s 2014 revolution. But after so many years, she says many people think of Chernobyl as an anomaly of the past—a result of Soviet-era ineptitude rather than a catastrophe that could occur again. “Thirty years is a long period.”
That’s not to say that the group doesn’t still try to fight the nuclear industry. Holovko works tirelessly, attending all the public hearings on lifetime extension. The group has also released its own technical report expressing concerns about the lifetime extension of one reactor that it says suffers potentially dangerous vulnerabilities, including the possibility of small cracks in the reactor vessel that could lead to the release of radiation.
The response to the report from the state-owned nuclear power operator Energoatom and nuclear regulators, however, has been strong and swift. Energoatom sued the group for putting forth what it called “misleading information.”
“We have received only one document that calls into question the lifetime extension,” said Sergiy Bozhko, the head of the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine. “This is a fake document, from a technical point of view. I don’t understand what these papers are—they’re just papers.”
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If there were ever any question about how Ukraine’s nuclear regulators view the safety of nuclear power, the dreary lobby of the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate quickly puts things into perspective. There, hanging on the wall above a TV, are two landscape paintings featuring the idyllic woods and plains of Ukraine. Sitting harmoniously in the middle of each of those scenes of clean, serene nature is a nuclear reactor.
I have come to meet Boris Stolyarchuk, the agency’s deputy chief inspector of nuclear and radiation safety. Stolyarchuk and his colleagues work assessing reactors for dangerous conditions that could warrant a shutdown or the denial of a lifetime extension.
Stolyarchuk undoubtedly understands the dangers of nuclear power, having himself witnessed them firsthand; he is one of the last surviving members of the night-shift team that was on duty when Chernobyl’s fourth reactor exploded. As a senior control engineer operating the water pumps from the reactor’s control deck, he reacted in horror as steam explosions blew through the roof of the reactor building, releasing a radioactive plume that spread across most of Europe. It was a miracle Stolyarchuk survived.
Stolyarchuk, however, says things are different now, using byzantine charts and hand-drawn diagrams to explain the many conditions nuclear power plants have to fulfill to pass a safety inspection. He says that inspections are a constant process nowadays, and occur under a system of globally accepted norms.
“And this doesn’t just concern nuclear units that have worked for 30 years and want to continue working,” he said of the inspections. “This concerns all units.”
One of the very first things Stolyarchuk tells me when I broach the topic of lifetime extension is that it’s a process that has already taken place across the globe. “We’re not the first, and we won’t be the last,” he says, shrugging off any worries. “We haven’t invented anything new here.”
Stolyarchuk isn’t wrong. From Russia to France, many countries have already renewed operating licenses for aging reactors, some of which are even older than Ukraine’s. In the United States, where there were once 110 nuclear reactors, around three-quarters of them have already had their lifetimes extended from 40 to 60 years—a fact that some nuclear advocates say demonstrates the innocuous nature of lifetime extensions.
Others, however, say the dangers of lifetime extension are already beginning to present themselves in reactors with renewed licenses. The Union of Concerned Scientists found that between 2010 and 2012 there were 56 nuclear meltdown “near misses” in the United States, and that the likelihood of such an event increases significantly as a reactor ages. The controversial 40-year-old Indian Point nuclear plant in New York, for example, is currently in the middle of applying for a lifetime extension, despite a poor track record that seems to have worsened with time. The power plant experienced an emergency in May 2015 that could have caused a station blackout—the same dangerous condition that lead to the Fukushima meltdown in 2011. This year, bolts holding a reactor’s interior together were found to be degraded or missing, there was a dangerous power outage in one of the reactor cores, and monitoring wells surrounding the plant showed a 65,000 percent spike in radiation levels.
In fact, the very first reactor to seek a 20-year lifetime extension in the United States, Yankee Rowe in Massachusetts, closed after only 32 years of service, largely because of worries that the reactor vessel was becoming brittle—the same safety concern the NECU raised in their report.
As for the concerns of environmentalists, however, Stolyarchuk says debate on lifetime extension is welcome, and that the agency listens actively. He points to public hearings where “anyone from the public can absolutely take part” and directs me to the inspectorate’s clunky old website, where he says the agency answers questions from any citizen during the application process. “We are fully open.” Stolyarchuk says the process is also being closely watched by the international community, which is committed to ensuring nuclear safety in Europe.
Sweeping safety upgrades at Ukraine’s nuclear power plants are being funded in part by the EBRD, an EU-supported investment bank that was initially founded to help former Eastern Bloc countries establish market economies. Critics say the government’s plan to extend the lifetimes of nuclear reactors wouldn’t be possible without the financial backing of the EBRD. The ERBD, however, says the upgrades are strictly a matter of safety, and were agreed upon only after the government’s decision to extend the lifetimes of nuclear power plants.
“The government has made its decisions. There’s really nothing we can do about that,” said Louis Borgo, a senior EBRD banker and nuclear safety upgrade project leader. “What we know is that they’re probably going to run for years and years, these facilities, and they’re going to do what they can to keep them running. So the question is: What about the safety?”
Borgo says the bank has worked closely with environmentalists, including NECU, to ensure that the public’s voice is heard. Ultimately, though, he says the decision to continue using old nuclear reactors rests with the Ukrainian government. “ERBD is not a nuclear promoter in any sense,” he reiterates.
Ukraine’s government, however, certainly promotes the industry.
President Poroshenko, an oligarch who was swept into power on a nationalist wave after supporting the 2014 revolution, made a commitment early in his presidency to connect Ukraine to the European power grid by next year, and nuclear power factors significantly into that promise. Ukrainian national energy utility Ukrenergo has signed an agreement to supply Poland with electricity from its Khmelnitsky Nuclear Power Plant.
That deal, however, would require resuming construction on two half-completed reactors at Khmelnitsky that were abandoned after the anti-nuclear fervor in the local elections of 1990. Russian state atomic-energy company Rosatom was committed to complete the two reactors, but Poroshenko canceled that agreement in an effort to break ties with Russia. The country is now looking for other foreign backers of the project, and already signed a memorandum of understanding last November with the French engineering firm Areva “for safety upgrades of existing and future nuclear power plants in Ukraine, lifetime extension and performance optimization.”
Energoatom, the state-owned nuclear power operator, did not immediately respond to e-mail and phone requests for comment on this article.
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Today, the area surrounding the Chernobyl disaster is an eerie picture of the dangers nuclear energy can pose. Nature is quickly reclaiming the ruins of Pripyat, the abandoned city where, before the disaster, close to 50,000 people lived.
The radiation poisoning the environment is invisible, however, which makes the apocalyptic landscape even more haunting. There are no obvious signs of calamity—no scorched earth, no signs of violence, no grand monuments. Just evacuated buildings full of broken glass and debris. Just empty streets where the forest has begun to push through the cracked asphalt from below. Everything has been ceded to looters and nature.
There are, however, a growing number of people who wander through the former residential areas of Pripyat: thousands of selfie-stick-wielding foreigners on “dark tourism” excursions. They squeeze down the overgrown streets in clean white vans whose decals promise, “Trips all your friends will be jealous of” and chernobyl missiles, tanks. As I hung back in my own tour’s van, far too frightened to leave, as if a car could somehow protect against radiation, I noticed that other tourists didn’t seem the slightest bit worried. Instead, most seemed amused by the danger surrounding them.
Back at the NECU office, I asked Holovko what she thought of the fact that Chernobyl had now become a grim tourist trap. Admittedly, I was expecting her to draw the same pessimistic conclusions I had about human curiosity and our inability to learn from past mistakes.
She said, however, that there was real value in exposing people to the otherworldly horror on display in the exclusion zone. Holovko’s uncle was a Chernobyl liquidator—one of the hundreds of thousands sent into dangerous conditions to clean up the nuclear meltdown—and she says it’s important to remind people of Chernobyl’s ruinous consequences. “The understanding of the danger is still there,” she said.
As my interview with Holovko and Pasyuk wrapped up, I suggested we find an anti-nuclear banner and that they stand for a picture with it. Finding the banner entailed digging into several boxes in the full hallway closet, but eventually they emerged with a long, yellow, vinyl sign.
They used to keep this banner hung from their office balcony, which was conveniently located across from Energoatom’s office balcony. Holovko says that every day, when the Energoatom employees took their smoke breaks, they’d have to stare right at those big black letters hung next to the radiation hazard sign:
“There will be no ‘renaissance.’”