Chernobyl's Arch Engineers Wanted a Huge Challenge

"It's why I became an engineer."

The Chernobyl New Safe Confinement might be the most unique ongoing engineering project in the world. Thirty years after the nuclear disaster here, a behemoth structure — 79 million pounds and 295 yards wide and taller than the Statue of Liberty — slid into place on November 29. It covers the destroyed fourth reactor at the plant. For the workers on the project, the mammoth slide was the culmination of their life’s work.

Some of the men here in Chernobyl only half-jokingly refer to it as the newest wonder of the world. Never before has something this large ever been moved, and certainly not in a radioactive environment where there is sometimes only a couple millimeters’ margin for error. It took 1,200 workers on site everyday from over 30 different countries, and funds from 46 donors countries to accomplish. In short, it’s the largest land-based structure that moves. Technically, it slides.

And it couldn’t have happened a moment sooner. The original containment shelter — known colloquially as the “sarcophagus” — built by the Soviets in the wake of the nuclear disaster on April 26, 1986 wasn’t intended to last more than 30 years:

The original sarcophagus.

This new multi-billion dollar shelter is scheduled to last at least 100 years, and has three purposes: It’ll protect the environment from the unstable shelter, it will fully contain the large masses of highly radioactive material still inside, and most importantly, it creates the necessary conditions for dismantling and disposing of all that radioactive waste.

Construction manager Helder Nogueira, a Portuguese employee of Novarka, the company managing the project, has been working on the project for five years. He tells Inverse his most daunting challenge was during installation of the skid tracks that would propel the new containment arch into place.

“We had a two-millimeter tolerance for error for every 165 meters, and we installed almost one kilometer of rails,” Nogueira says. “That was quite a challenge, especially considering that the installation is in a slope with a 33-degree angle.”

For Nogueira, like many others here, summoning up the courage to come to Chernobyl was daunting in itself. “When someone asks you to go work in Chernobyl, any reasonable person thinks, ‘no way!’” he says. “But when I thought it over, I knew how important it was, and how huge of a challenge it would be. I love challenges, so I thought, why not?”

Some of the best engineers in the world are working on the project but they’re not all nuclear experts. Some have never worked in a nuclear environment before. They seem to be motivated or lured to the idea that the containment arch is one of the greatest engineering projects of the century. It will be around far longer than any of them, and symbolizes something far greater than any single person.

Engineers John Metcalfe from Northern Ireland and Mark Jones, also from the UK, shared Nogueira’s feeling that the project was too epic to pass up. “They asked me to come here for six months, laughs Metcalfe, “but that was three and a half years ago. To be honest, I’m happy to be here because I consider it a privilege to work on a project like this. I mean, it’s why I became an engineer.”

While Jones has only been on site for five months, he’s part of the crucial year-long phase of the project that starts now. Many describe it as the most demanding aspect of the entire scope of work. Now that the structure has slid into place, crews must install complex ventilation systems, and set up the interior infrastructure, including the ceiling membrane that will connect the arch with the existing structures to seal it off.

The ventilation system will keep the air within the structure at 40 percent relative humidity indefinitely to ensure the very long term durability of the metal frame of the arch. The air then passes through HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters that remove virtually all of the radioactive particles before it’s discharged through a stainless steel stack suspended from the arch. The air is clean.

The lifestyle of the workers is expectedly rough. Nogueira says he’s up at 4:30 a.m. to make the drive from his home in Slavutych, a city of about 25,000 that was established for the evacuated personnel after the 1986 disaster. Metcalfe and Jones say that the process just to get into their workstation after they’ve entered the first gate can take another 90 minutes. Their fear of radiation poisoning is pervasive and exhausting.

“You have to go through a daily full-body scan, to check your levels, to check if there is any radiation contamination and you do that on the way in and on the way out,” says Metcalfe.

It’s also incredibly tedious work. It’s too dangerous for workers to stay in one area for eight consecutive hours, so they have to rotate every three hours. “All your work routines revolve around how much time you can spend at any one location and on any one task, so it’s a huge logistical task,” Metcalfe says.

Nogueira says that by the time he gets home, it’s usually 6:30 p.m. and all he has time for is a quick meal before sleep. “Life here is just work he says, “You can’t go to the cinema because you’re not going to understand it. In Slavutych, there are only like three restaurants. My family decided to go back home. So it’s a difficult lifestyle. Apart from the danger pay bonus, he says the only other benefit is being part of such a monumental project.

For some, it’s more than a project, it’s the culmination of their life’s work. Novarka’s Ukrainian-born head geodesist Andrey Donets, 51, was 23 when he came to work at Chernobyl in 1988. At that time he was a Soviet conscript, forced to clean up the consequences of the disaster. Donets, and others like him eventually came to be known across the Soviet Union as “The Liquidators” for their heroic, albeit involuntary, work. Many liquidators are now reeling from cancers and other diseases caused by their intimate and often unprotected exposure to the enormous radiation across Chernobyl at that time.

“I’ve been here from the start,” Donets says. “And I can tell you that many people doubted this would ever work. But we always believed that we’d accomplish this goal.”

Sergey Donets, 47, (left) has been working with his brother Andrey, 51, in Chernobyl's Exclusion Zone since 2000. Andrey was just 23 years old when he was drafted to be one of the infamous Soviet liquidators forced to clean up the disaster at Chernobyl. On November 29, they watched their life's work, the New Containment Shelter, slide into place.

Christian Borys/Inverse

His brother Sergey, 47, is an advisor at Novarka, has been working in Chernobyl’s exclusion zone since 2000. Standing outside in the bitter cold and looking out over the enormous shelter as their Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko mingles with diplomats inside a tent set up nearby to celebrate the occasion, it’s a bittersweet moment for the adult brothers.

“We had a feeling of pride that we actually managed to do it, but also a feeling of sadness that the whole thing was over,” Sergey Donets says about the project’s completion.

The technology that Sergey’s referring to includes the world’s most sophisticated remote robotic nuclear crane, the Main Cranes System (MCS), built by an American company out of Minnesota. From here on in, robots will do the work of removing nuclear materials from the reactor core, and finally, remove the reactor and other contaminated structures.

As Alexander Kompaniets, a Ukrainian-born methodologist working at Chernobyl with Novarka says, “the arch is obviously important but it’s only 60 percent of the project. It’s only the cover, the most interesting stuff will happen later on underneath.”

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