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Environment

A new sarcophagus for Chernobyl

Three decades years after the world's worst nuclear accident, a new protective covering is being completed. The massively expensive hull is due to be slid into place late in 2016.

In a calm way, almost casually, Vitali Petruk explains plans in the years to come for those in charge of the former nuclear power plant in Chernobyl. The Ukrainian head of the restricted area was paying a visit to the former nuclear power plant, where 30 years ago - on April 26, 1986 - the world's worst nuclear accident occurred.

Petruk explains that a conservation area is planned here, and solar panels could be installed in the places that have been abandoned by humans. And in the same casual way, he adds: "People will never be able to live again in the central area - in about a third of the exclusion zone - even in a hundred thousand years." The level of radioactive contamination is too high.

Ferris wheel in Chernobyl, Ukraine (Picture: DW/J. Thurau)

Pripyat, near Chernobyl, became an eerie ghost town after the nuclear disaster

Millions of people affected

In April 1986, engineers of the former USSR intended to shut down the power plant for a test - but it failed catastrophically. The reactor exploded, and a huge amount of radioactivity was released, which transformed northern Ukraine forever.

The number of people who died

is still unclear.

Hundreds? Thousands? Estimates vary - 400,000 people had to be relocated, also in Belarus. The total loss was estimated at an astronomical $600 billion.

Millions in the surrounding countries are now considered victims of the accident, also due to long-term consequences. Chernobyl became a worldwide symbol of the risks of nuclear energy.

A new protective shell for 2 billion euros

Works continue on a protective shell, which should be ready by November 2016.

The covering should shield the destroyed reactor block 4 from the environment for at least the next 100 years. Even 30 years after the accident, 95 percent of the

contaminated materials

are still not buried. The ruins are just poorly covered with cement (also called a sarcophagus), which was built over the reactor in 200 days directly after the accident.

The new protective covering - 110 meters high, 260 meters wide - costs about 2 billion euros. Financed mainly by the G7 and some European countries, it is being built 300 meters from the nuclear reactor.

Once ready, the hull will be guided on rails over the reactor, planned for this autumn. It is a huge investment, to which Germany has contributed around 300 million euros.

"We have insisted that if we help to fund the new covering, the other three reactors in Chernobyl must be decommissioned," said Kai Weidendbrück, an expert in Chernobyl with the German Environment Ministry.

Model of Chernobyl, Ukraine (Picture: DW/J. Thurau)

German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks, standing in the middle, views a model of the new sarcophagus

Ukraine still relies on nuclear energy

Despite the accident, Ukraine continues to rely on nuclear energy. 15 nuclear reactors provide up to 60 percent of electricity nationally. "We are a poor country, we need nuclear energy," says Ukrainian Environment Minister Hanna Wronska.

The nuclear disaster is no longer a big issue in the country. "There is the conflict with Russia, corruption, the fluctuating government, poverty. Ukrainians have other worries," says an employee of the German embassy, who herself grew up near the nuclear plant.

German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks says she is confident that the covering will be finished and will fulfill its function. Since a French consortium is building the covering, Hendricks believes funds for the construction will not disappear into the notorious Ukrainian corruption.

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