Amid fresh global worries about radiation after the nuclear meltdown in Japan, the U.S. and leading EU countries have decided to move ahead with a “New Safe Confinement” for the damaged reactors at Chernobyl in Ukraine involved in the deadly 1986 accident there that leaked radiation across Europe.
The new steel and concrete shield – set to be taller than the Statue of Liberty, cost nearly 1.5 billion euros and last 100 years -- will enclose the existing “sarcophagus” hastily erected after the accident at the Soviet-era reactors. It is called a “confinement,” a verbal nuance to show that it is not just a“containment” for gas but in fact a permanent structure to seal all the radioactive waste at the site.
This 2000-ton envelope got its fresh funding at a donor conference in Ukraine on April 19, the 25th anniversary of the accident. The financing pledges now amount to 550 billion euros ($786 billion), including fresh money of $123 from the U.S. and more than $500 million from the various EU institutions and member states. EU President Jose Manuel Barroso said that the sums made it possible to achieve the goal of erecting the new structure by 2015. In all, funding is expected to come mostly from the European Union (26%) and the U.S. (19.6%) – with Germany providing (8.35%) -- under the supervision of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). (Japan said that, in view of its post-accident condition, it could not contribute to the Chernobyl project.)
The renewed momentum behind the confinement reflects current nuclear anxieties that have triggered an anti-nuclear backlash across Europe – and to a lesser degree in the U.S. In recent years on both sides of the Atlantic, governments were moving to put their countries on course to a “nuclear renaissance” aimed at expanding nuclear-generated electricity as a form of energy that does not release greenhouse gases and can also reduce dependence on imports of oil and natural gas. (Asia has embraced nuclear power even more enthusiastically because of the strongly rising demand for energy in China, India and other countries in the region. Their building plans are proceeding largely unabated since the accident in Japan.)
In the West, the pro-nuclear trend has been hit hard by a new crisis of confidence about nuclear safety. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel come out in favor of a nuclear renewal after decades when Green-led opposition seemed to be edging Germany toward giving up nuclear power. But the Japanese accident led Merkel to distance herself from the nuclear option – a U-turn that did not spare her party from losing recent elections in Baden-Wurtemberg, one of Germany’s most important regions.
Across the EU, pro-nuclear countries such as Sweden and Switzerland have voiced second thoughts about their policies. The European Commission had pushed for across-the-board “stress tests” on all 143 nuclear plants in the 16 member states that have nuclear-power reactors. Tests will include plants’ vulnerability to seismic events, to flooding and to man-made disasters. Italy, which had announced plans to build its first nuclear plant in decades, will hold a referendum about a moratorium on new reactors. All EU countries –like the U.K.– are delaying new permit approvals while waiting for reports in coming months on the lessons to be learned from the disaster in Japan.
On the other side of the Atlantic, President Barack Obama’s pro-nuclear commitment -- designed to reduce greenhouse gas pollution and cut U.S oil imports – is liable to face a delay amid new public fears. To allay doubts, the Department of Energy has promised a thorough safety review, but may have to postpone new permits until safer technology actually becomes available for permit applications. Insurance rates are liable to rise. And the accident in Japan has also focused renewed concerns on spent fuel rods currently stored at reactor sites – a development adding urgency to the longstanding question of finding of how to store fuel rods and other nuclear-waste disposal as a preliminary to building more reactors.
In Japan, the nation’s nuclear policy is undergoing a major national process of rethinking that seems bound to take years to resolve. The damaged reactors have still not been brought fully under control, and the extent of the damage suggests that Japan’s U.S.-designed reactors may themselves finally need to be entombed in a Chernobyl-style coffin.
Thalia Bayle is an editorial assistant at the European Institute.