Photo Gallery: A New Cover for the Disaster Reactor

Foto: Efrem Lukatsky/ AP

Greenpeace Attacks Donor Conference 'How Many Chernobyls Can the World Afford?'

The global community has pledged a half-billion euros at the donor conference in Kiev for a new sarcophagus to cover the ruins of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. Tobias Münchmeyer of Greenpeace argues the conference is only the beginning. The dangers of Chernobyl will be with us for thousands of years to come and will remain extremely expensive for Europe.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The European Union and governments from around the world have pledged €550 million ($797 million) in aid for Chernobyl. You were present at the donor conference in Kiev. Has the conference had a positive echo?

Münchmeyer: This is a schizophrenic event. On the one hand, this was about the international community providing money for a second protective shell. It is supposed to protect the devastated reactor. At the same time, though, people are turning a blind eye to the actual roots of the catastrophe: nuclear power. The second part of the conference is focused on the future of nuclear power. But in that regard it feels as if everyone is either deaf or blind. Chernobyl is located only 90 kilometers (56 miles) from Kiev, but here one constantly hears that we need to stick with atomic energy and that it is entirely safe.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: That's a paradox.

Münchmeyer: The world is pumping hundreds of millions of euros into Ukraine to eliminate the aftermath of Chernobyl. At the same time, Kiev wants to expand its nuclear industry and the West is also empowering the Ukrainian government to do so. We need to draw lessons from Chernobyl. It is tragic that, 25 years after we now have a reactor disaster at Fukushima. The question is this: How many Chernobyls can the world still afford?

SPIEGEL ONLINE: To what extent is Europe empowering Ukraine?

Münchmeyer: The lifespans of Ukraine's old nuclear power plants are to be extended by 20 years. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the European Investment bank are even stimulating Kiev's atomic ambitions by providing financing for the construction of high-voltage power lines that will soon be used to export nuclear power to the West.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How significant is the danger that Chernobyl still poses today?

Münchmeyer: Estimates suggest that 95 percent of the fuel material still remained in the reactor ruins, even after the explosion. That continues to be the greatest concern, and the fuel needs to be recovered and put into interim storage in next few decades. But there isn't a single place anywhere in the world that serves as a final storage place for highly radioactive material. In addition, there are approximately 800 pits inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone where radiated construction materials, vehicles and machines were hastily buried. People don't even know today precisely where many of these unplanned nuclear depositories are located, not to mention what, exactly, has actually been buried there.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What kind of immediate effects does that have?

Münchmeyer: The pits threaten to contaminate the ground water, which could in turn lead to radioactive water seeping into nearby rivers. Forest and bush fires could also again stir up radioactive material from plants and the soil, posing a renewed threat for people within a radius of at least 40 to 50 kilometers.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: When will the new sarcophagus be completed?

Münchmeyer: For guidance purposes, the year 2015 has been set. Officially, however, there is no longer a target date. That's because two previous dates named for completion had to be pulled. So the question of when the second protective shell will be completed remains a completely open one.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The new sarcophagus will be a high-tech building, a hanger taller than the Statue of Liberty in New York and 250 meters (820 feet) wide. It is estimated that the protective shell will cost €1.5 billion. Why does Chernobyl still remain so expensive today?

Münchmeyer: Because practically nothing has been done during the past 25 years to either mitigate or eliminate the consequences of the catastrophe. After the disaster, the Soviets hastily encased the radioactive reactor ruins. It was a good decision and an enormous task.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But what is it that makes these sums of money so enormous?

Münchmeyer: The new sarcophagus is expensive because it is a pioneering venture. It will be built next to the reactor and then slid over the ruins. Never before in history has a building of that size been transported on rails. The construction is also a logistical challenge because the death zone lacks infrastructure. Additionally, the radiation levels in the area surrounding the sarcophagus are still so high that a responsible deployment of construction workers remains extremely difficult -- especially when you take into consideration that the new one is to be built directly next to the old sarcophagus. Concerns about the premature collapse of the old sarcophagus are also complicating planning.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Can one estimate today the time frame for which Chernobyl will no longer present a danger?

Münchmeyer: There's a lovely saying that time heals all wounds. But in Chernobyl, time is healing nothing because the radioactive danger will continue to exist for hundreds and thousands of years. In the case of plutonium, we are talking about a half life of 24,000 years. The new protective casing is officially expected to last for 100 years, but that is just a blink of an eye.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How much longer will the international community be dealing with the issue of Chernobyl?

Münchmeyer: This wasn't the last donor conference; it was the first. We must face the fact that Chernobyl donor conferences will still be held for decades to come -- even for hundreds of years. The accident was a catastrophe of Europe-wide scope. If we truly believe in the idea of a common Europe, then we cannot force Ukraine to deal with the problem on its own.

Interview conducted by Benjamin Bidder
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