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.