August 18, 2004

Engineer Witnessed Chernobyl From Within - And Lives To Tell

From New Scientist: "Alexander Yuvchenko was on duty at Chernobyl's reactor number 4 the night it exploded on 26 April 1986. He is one of the few working there that night to have survived. He suffered serious burns and went through many operations to save his life, and he is still ill from the radiation. He recently broke his silence for a documentary to be shown on the Discovery Channel. Here he speaks to Michael Bond about what happened that night:"
To get a clearer idea of what had happened we walked outside. What we saw was terrifying. Everything that could be destroyed had been. The entire water coolant system was gone. The right-hand side of the reactor hall had been completely destroyed, and on the left the pipes were just hanging. That was when I realised that Khodemchuk was definitely dead. The place where I was told he'd been standing was in ruins. The huge turbines were still standing, but everything around them was rubble. He must have been buried under that.

From where I stood I could see a huge beam of projected light flooding up into infinity from the reactor. It was like a laser light, caused by the ionisation of the air. It was light-bluish, and it was very beautiful. I watched it for several seconds. If I'd stood there for just a few minutes I would probably have died on the spot because of gamma rays and neutrons and everything else that was spewing out. But Tregub yanked me around the corner to get me out the way. He was older and more experienced.
Zero Hour: Disaster at Chernobyl airs on the Discovery Channel UK.

August 16, 2004

More Nuclear Troubles in the Ukraine

Khmelnitsky nuclear plant in Ukraine. Photo courtesy ITAR TASS news agencyAustralia's Herald Sun reports of serious problems last week at the new Khmelnitsky nuclear power plant at Neteshin:
The reactor at Khmelnitsky power station had to be shut down on Sunday, less than two hours after it went into operation, Interfax news agency reported on yesterday. Further technical failures prevented it operating on Monday and Tuesday.

"These incidents do not represent any threat to the public or to the environment," state nuclear energy company Energoatom said in a statement.

Ukraine was the scene of the world's worst civilian nuclear disaster in 1986, when a reactor at Chernobyl nuclear power station exploded, contaminating large areas in Ukraine and neighbouring Belarus and Russia. Energoatom confirmed incidents had occurred at Khmelnitsky but said it "saw no cause for concern".

"Certain media inflated the affair," it said.

The K2 Russian-designed VVER pressurised water reactor at Khmelnitsky, which has a capacity of 1000 megawatts, was brought on stream on Sunday at a ceremony attended by Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma. But it ground to a halt almost immediately.

An official at Ukraine's governmental commission for atomic energy said that automatic security systems at the power plant had cut off the reactor from the electricity grid. The reactor was reconnected to the grid three hours later but had to be totally shut down later because of a failure in the cooling system caused by a power breakdown, the official added.

The reactor was restarted on Monday, only to be stopped again yesterday, officially to test its shut-down system and cooling units.
Not an auspicious beginning, I'm afraid, despite ITAR-TASS' rather glowing (if spoken-too-soon) praise. I truly hope plant officials don't do something deciding to bypass safety measures to "get the thing started" - we know where that can lead.

Frighteningly, for many regions of the world like Ukraine, nuclear energy is currently one of the most viable energy options. Having a cold climate with existing high pollution, more use of fuels like coal would cause further damage to air quality and likely increase rainfall pH levels. Additionally, research into developing workable technologies such as geothermal, solar and wind power requires large-scale financial investment that strapped nations like the Ukraine simply can't afford.

From "Non-traditional sources of energy may be key to Ukraine's future," by Roman Woronowycz of Kyiv [Kiev] Press Bureau, in the Ukraine Weekly, April 30, 2000:
Once looked at with keen interest, a Ukrainian government choked by money shortages has cast aside any serious work on the development of non-traditional renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power, as an alternative to its primary reliance on atomic energy.

Ukraine has made much of the West's delays in providing financing to complete two traditional and controversial new reactors that Kyiv wants completed to offset the power that will be lost when Chornobyl shuts down at the end of this year. However, there are those here and in ecologically minded countries such as Germany who believe that Ukraine has no recourse but to reconsider non-traditional energy sources as well, which could do the work of the nuclear power plants as efficiently and with none of the risk.

One such person is the institute's director, Viktor Shulha, a gray-haired, 60-something scientist with a strong belief that Ukraine must turn to wind and solar power to meet its energy demands. Mr. Shulha said he has been frustrated in his attempts to turn the government's ear to his cause by the most familiar of laments in Ukraine: there simply is no money for it.

Mr. Shulha became the director of the Institute of Energy Engineering when it was formed 10 years ago by the Ministry of Energy, and at one time had an extensive group of advisors and experts. The team already had developed recommendations and a plan for developing wind energy when it came up against the insurmountable wall of Ukraine's current economic reality.

"We decided that for Ukraine the best potential would be to develop wind and biomass sources, and the government put the accent on wind energy. But, as it turned out, Ukraine had no finances and the experts moved on," said Mr. Shulha.
More than any other nation, the Ukraine should understand the risks of nuclear power and the awesome consequences of "inconsequential" mistakes - but with another bitter winter on the way, time manages to dull the sting of fear almost as smoothly as reassuring official words. "If someone you know was killed in a car crash nearly twenty years ago, would you stop riding in cars for the rest of your life?"

Atomic technology has advanced since the 1986 disaster as wealthier nuclear-dependent nations, like France, Belgium and Italy, have invested considerable sums in developing safer meltdown-resistant reactor designs. Nonetheless, as history has shown, nothing is truly 100% foolproof - and make no mistake, EnergoAtom is a beleaguered interest, by any account [check out news stories linked below]. Let's keep our fingers crossed, and our orbiting Eyes In The Sky watchful.

EnergoAtom's website
EBDR Loan to EnergoAtom Agency of Ukraine [July 21, 2004]
September 13, 2002 Weekly Mirror ["Zerkalo Nedely"]: "COURT RULED: NEDASHKOVSKY MUST RETURN TO HEAD ENERGOATOM"
WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor, October 18, 2002, "Scandals and lawsuits face Ukraine's Energoatom"

August 11, 2004

"Night of the Living Dead 4" to be Filmed at Chernobyl

While dozens of documentaries (and at least one computer video game) are set in the ruins of Chernobyl, no one has shot a feature film in the Forbidden Zone near Pripyat - until now, that is. Night of the Living Dead 4: Necropolis begins filming soon:
Ukrainian-born producer Anatoly Fradis is proud -- despite the obstacles and the cost. "Up to a couple of days before we began shooting, it was touch-and-go whether they would let us in, and I had to pay more than I had budgeted to secure the permission," Fradis says, standing inside Chernobyl's first checkpoint inside the zone.

"Chernobyl is very spooky and serves our purpose -- we are shooting in all these abandoned towns and villages, with rusting equipment lying around everywhere," Fradis says. The sense of a post-apocalyptic world dawns as we follow the Chaika around the Chernobyl district.

Grass and shrubs sprout from holes in the sides of crumbling cottages. A graveyard for helicopters, fire trucks and other equipment used in the cleanup operation in 1986 stretches beside a road. In Pripyat, the deserted town that once housed the reactor's work force and their families, children's toys still litter the rubbish-strewn kindergarten, and fading Soviet slogans adorn the sides of gaunt concrete apartment blocks.
[via Greengrl]