Soviet Legacies Who Should Pay for the New 'Tomb' at Chernobyl?

The old concrete sarcophagus encasing the burned reactor at Chernobyl is crumbling. Although a European consortium has agreed to entomb the site in a metal vault, it is still unclear exactly where all the money will come from. Moscow, for its part, appears reluctant to pay up.

Now you see it, later you won't.

Now you see it, later you won't.

When Chernobyl's Reactor No. 4 exploded on April 26, 1986, Ukraine was politically still part of the Soviet Union. Now it's an independent country, and its ties to Moscow have been strained at times. The Chernobyl reactor, which was hastily sealed in concrete and lead after the meltdown, remains a point of contention.

Chernobyl went down in history as the worst accident of the nuclear age, and the ruins need a new protective shield because the old sarcophagus leaks radiation. The project is expected to cost around €2 billion ($2.6 billion). At the moment, €740 million has yet to be raised. Russia likes to see itself as a successor to the vast Soviet empire in certain other contexts, but so far it has donated little to guard against the mess in Ukraine.

The new metal shield will resemble an airplane hangar, 150 meters (490 feet) long, meant to slide over the ruins and entomb them for about a century (see graphic). The covering should also make it possible for workers to dismantle the reactor within that span of time.

"Chernobyl will not exist anymore," is how Yves-Thibault de Silguy, chairman of a French company called Vinci, described the project in 2007. A consortium of French and German nuclear-engineering firms collectively called Novarka won a contract that year to build the vault.

Fixing Old Leaks

The old, Russian-built seal around the reactor started to crack in the 1990s, and now it lets in rainwater. Novarka wants to build a waterproof shelter to prevent water from reaching the reactor core.

When it's finished, perhaps by 2015, the vault is expected to be the largest movable structure in the world. Costs have risen since 2007. Originally the budget was reported to be about €380 million, but it bulged because of stricter safety requirements, according to Ukrainian officials.

Financing the vault has been a joint project of the EU and G-8 governments. Russia belongs to the latter group, but so far it has promised only 1 percent of the final cost -- €23 million. Around half the promised funding comes from European governments or from Brussels, and European Commission President José Manuel Barroso raised the delicate topic at a recent EU-Russia summit.

Moscow has been more generous to other sectors of the nuclear industry. In 2010 alone, it spent €1.7 billion on nuclear power-plant construction. A dozen new reactors are slated to go live in Russia by 2020. The state firm Rosatom is currently constructing, or plans to construct, other new plants in nearby countries like India and China.

The Kremlin, meanwhile, pays Chernobyl survivors in Ukraine about €50 each per month.



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