Tag Archives: chernobyl

Ukraine seizes spirit made from apples grown near the Chernobyl nuclear site

Would you drink an “artisanal spirit” made from apples grown near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant? A group of researchers from the United Kingdom has just finished producing the first 1,500 bottles. They assure us the drink is completely safe and radiation-free and hope to get it soon on the UK market.

But there’s a problem. The Ukrainian government just seized it all.

Image credits: Chernobyl Spirit Company

The bottles are now in the hands of prosecutors who are investigating the case. The researchers argue they are wrongly accused of using forged Ukrainian excise stamps.


The Chernobyl Spirit Company aims to produce high-quality spirits made with crops from the nuclear disaster exclusion zone. This is a more than 4,000-square kilometer area around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant that was abandoned due to fears of radioactive contamination after the devastating nuclear accident there in 1986.

The event is considered the world’s worst nuclear disaster and exposed millions of people to dangerous radiation levels in large swathes of Ukraine and neighboring Belarus. Jim Smith, a UK researcher, has spent years studying the transfer of radioactivity to crops within the main exclusion zone, alongside a group of researchers.

They have grown experimental crops to find out if grain, and other food that is grown in the zone, could be used to make products that are safe to consume, hoping to prove that land around the exclusion zone could be put back to productive use. This would allow communities in the area to grow and sell produce, something that’s currently illegal due to fears of spreading radiation.

Image credits: Chernobyl Spirit Company

Smith and his team launched in 2019 the first experimental bottle of “Atomik,” a spirit made from the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Since then, they have been working with the Palinochka Distillery in Ukraine to develop a small-scale experimental production, using apples from the Narodychi District – an inhabited area after the nuclear accident.

“There are radiation hotspots [in the exclusion zone] but for the most part contamination is lower than you’d find in other parts of the world with relatively high natural background radiation,” Smith told the BBC. “The problem for most people who live there is they don’t have the proper diet, good health services, jobs or investment.”

The drink was initially produced using water and grain from the Chernobyl exclusion zone but the researchers have now adjusted the recipe and incorporated the apples. It’s the first consumer product to come from the abandoned area around the damaged nuclear power plant, the argue, excited about the opportunities that it represents.

The aim of selling the drink, Smith explains, is to enable the team to distribute most of the money to local communities. The rest will be reinvested in the business, as Smith hopes to provide the team with an income to work on the project. The most important thing for the area now is economic development, not radioactivity, he argues.

The researchers are now working hard to get the shipment released. Elina Smirnova, the lawyer representing them in court, said in a statement that the seizure was in violation of Ukrainian law, and accused the authorities of targeting “a foreign company which has tried to establish an ethical ‘white’ business to primarily help Ukraine.”

Chernobyl in photos — what does the exclusion area look like 35 years after the disaster?

The plant and its concrete sarcophagus is in the background. The town of Pripyat is slowly reclaimed by nature.Image credits: Amort1939.

The 26th of April, 1986, marks a dark day in modern history. Reactor 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine (then USSR) exploded, marking what is, to this day, the worst nuclear accident in history.

It was a combination of a flawed reactor design and human error. The accident happened as a test was meant to be carried out. The test was delayed due to a problem with the electrical grid; a new shift came on, and the new shift didn’t know what to do. Lastly, the plant officials decided to violate safety procedures. Together, all these spelled disaster.

The plant was located near the town of Pripyat, which housed some 50,000 people, mostly plant workers. It was a fairly normal Soviet town, until the day of the disaster. Everyone was forced to relocate, as were 300,000 other people around the plant.

An exclusion zone was drawn around the plant, and Pripyat was abandoned. It’s now a ghost town.

Image credits: Wendelin Jacober.

The amusement park in Pripyat is especially striking. It was to have its grand opening on May 1, 1986, less than one week after the day of the explosion. Several rumors state that the park was opened on April 27th just before the announcement to evacuate the city was made.

Some theories state that the amusement park was opened earlier than expected to distract the people from the disaster that was unfolding nearby. Now, the park (and its ferris wheel especially) stand as a symbol of the Chernobyl disaster.

Image credits: Dasha Urvachova.
Image credits: Ilja Nedilko.

The event ejected 400 times more radioactive material than the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The city inhabitants were most affected, with immediate reports of headaches, skin burns, and uncontrollable vomiting. The radiation levels around Pripyat have reduced substantially, but they’re still dangerously high.

When locals eventually evacuated, they were told to take only essentials. As a result, people left behind most of their stuff, and the town remained as if frozen in time — although recently, nature is starting to reclaim the town and its surroundings.

Image credits: Yves Alarie.
Image credits: Wendelin Jacober.
Image credits: Wendelin Jacober.
Image credits: Wendelin Jacober.

Soviet authorities have covered the plant in a concrete sarcophagus, but because it was leaking, they covered the entire thing in a new sarcophagus.

More recently, a large solar plant was opened near the site, producing a third of the reactor’s former electricity.

Two more reactors were also being constructed at Chernobyl, but construction was stopped after the explosion. Image via Pixabay.
The dome containing the radiation erected in 2017.

The popular HBO series about the Chernobyl disaster and its aftermath led to a surge in attention and tourists in the town of Pripyat. Tourism was surging in Pripyat before the pandemic.

Some residents also returned to the ghost town, especially elderly residents who continued to live in their homes, making a living from a combination of state benefits and agriculture.

Image via Pixabay.
Image via Pixabay.

Ukrainian authorities are also looking to obtain World Heritage site status for Chernobyl — an unlikely outcome for what is essentially the tragic site of an abandoned town — but an outcome that could turn it into a valuable site.

“We believe that putting Chernobyl on the UNESCO heritage list is a first and important step towards having this great place as a unique destination of interest for the whole of mankind,” said Oleksandr Tkachenko, the Ukrainian culture minister. “The importance of the Chernobyl zone lays far beyond Ukraine’s borders … It is not only about commemoration, but also history and people’s rights,” he said.

Some areas around Chernobyl look almost normal. Image via Pixabay.
… but many others don’t. Image credits: Amort1939.

Ultimately, Chernobyl looms as a warning of what can happen when risky design meets human error. Despite being one of the safest forms of energy nowadays, nuclear energy is still regarded with skepticism, in part due to Chernobyl.

As for Pripyat and the exclusion area, it has become a sort of haven for wildlife. The negative impact that radiation has on the ecosystem seems to be counterbalanced by the lack of humans in the area. In other words, as bad as nuclear fallout is, it’s not as bad for nature as human activity. It’s a saddening realization, on top of an already desolate chapter in human history.

Image via Unsplash.
European bison, boreal lynx, moose, and brown bear photographed inside Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (Ukraine). Image credits: Proyecto TREE/Sergey Gaschack.

The Chernobyl Disaster — 35 Years Since our Worst Nuclear Tragedy

On this day 35 years ago, in 1986, an explosion shook Ukraine and the world. It wasn’t your average accident, it was pretty much a worst-case scenario: a nuclear accident at reactor no. 4 in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. The event forced the abandonment of a city, led to the evacuation of 350,000 people, and changed the way people see nuclear energy forever.

To this day, the Chernobyl disaster remains the worst nuclear accident in history, and one of only two major nuclear accidents in history. Nowadays, the area around Chernobyl has become an unlikely wildlife paradise, but the effects of and questions around Chernobyl still loom.

Image credits: Kamil Porembiński.

The RBMK reactor

The story of Chernobyl is fraught with mistakes and incompetence, but it starts with something called an RBMK reactor. RBMK (‘reaktor bolshoy moshchnosti kanalny’, Russian for ‘high-power channel reactor’) reactors are a type of graphite nuclear reactor that was only built in the USSR. Other countries considered them too unsafe to operate, especially due to their instability on startup and shut down.

The ill-fated RBMK reactors had an unusual design as they used graphite as a moderator, whereas other nuclear rectors used only water. When the reactor ran low on power, it had problems keeping its temperature down. Because of the Cold War, the USSR did not share technology and expertise with western countries and kept its nuclear project shrouded in secrecy, and thus employed a design that was simply unsafe.

Schematic of an RMBK reactor.

The RMBK reactor is advantageous if you want to produce both plutonium and energy at the same time. But, under certain operating conditions, power levels inside the reactor can increase uncontrollably until the reactor ultimately collapses. The graphite blocks are also flammable at high temperatures, which would prove to be a problem at Chernobyl.

But the USSR was aware of these issues. In the early hours of April 26, 1986, they were actually working on a test to see how the problem could be fixed. That’s when it all went to hell.

The day of the Chernobyl explosion

It wasn’t just that the design was flawed. The events that led to the test marked a chain of errors — after all, no disaster is complete without a good amount of user incompetence.

The Chernobyl nuclear plant lies in the Ukrainian city of Pripyat, close to the Ukraine-Belarus border (although at the time, it was within the USSR). Pripyat had a population of about 50,000 people and was a fairly normal Russian small city. But the Chernobyl test was about to change all that.

The city of Pripyat, three kilometres from the ill-fated Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, is now a ghost town. The Ferris wheel in the background is frozen in time — part of a small amusement park scheduled to open May 1, 1986. Photo Credit: Petr Pavlicek/IAEA

It was meant to be a simulation of an electrical power outage. In the case of such an outage, the reactor would stop passing water through its core for cooling. After 60 seconds, diesel generators would kick in to ensure water, but those 60 seconds were the problem: it was long enough for the reactor to start overheating, which could mean they could explode in the case of a power failure. The test was meant to determine whether the reactor could withstand this long until the emergency systems kicked in.

It wasn’t the first such test: three others like it had been carried out. The previous tests failed to provide a clear answer, and officials were still looking for one when the explosion happened.

The test was initially planned for April 25th, but it was delayed by 10 hours by officials in Kyiv. This meant that the shift changed — and the personnel that eventually ran the test was not trained for it. The instructions for the test were unclear, and the staff was not fully aware of what they should do.

The test itself involved putting the reactor into dangerous territory, and knowing what to do if things don’t go according to plan was essential. An RMBK reactor isn’t like a light bulb, you can’t just switch it on and off. But the new shift was not properly trained and they tried to do just that, restarting it in one go.

Steam surges would go on for days after the initial explosion.

They attempted to get the power back to an acceptable level by removing the control rods in the core, but during the 10-hour delay, a few things happened: for starters, the core cooled down somewhat, which meant it didn’t boil water and produce steam. It also accumulated xenon, a type of atom that basically blocks the nuclear fission process.

Normally, the reactor would be powered up within 24 hours, but the plant manager didn’t want to wait. Everything about this process, from the testing to the delay to the untrained shift to the lack of regard for safety protocols was setting the Chernobyl nuclear plant for disaster — and disaster struck.

Despite desperate attempts to shut down the reactor, another power surge caused a chain reaction. Several explosions happened at the plant, and ultimately the nuclear core itself exploded.

The Chernobyl disaster

It wasn’t a nuclear explosion, it was a ‘regular’ explosion, but one that spread radiation far and wide. When firefighters arrived at the scene, two people had already been killed by the explosion and several others were badly injured. They struggled to put out the fires, and the effort required helicopters dumping water and sand on the fire.

In addition to the two people killed by the explosion, another 29 firefighters would be killed in days by acute radiation poisoning — a gruesome and painful fate for those who risked their lives to contain the disaster.

But despite the explosions and the radiation already surging from the plant, no people were evacuated from Pripyat until 36 hours later. The Soviets initially denied the accident, before making a brief announcement two days later. But the world had already realized it was a historic catastrophe.

Sweden had already started reporting high levels of radiation, and several countries followed suit — a nuclear accident isn’t exactly something you can sweep under the rug, as hard as you try. More than the explosion itself, this radiation was the big problem.

For the next nine days, considerable airborne radioactive contamination precipitated onto parts of the USSR and Europe. It’s now estimated by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation that more than 6,000 children and adolescents developed thyroid cancer due to exposure to radiation from the event.

The Soviet Union tried to clean the area with robots, but most of them failed due to the radiation itself, which affected their electronics. Around 90% of the debris was cleaned up by soldiers, some of which went into the exclusion zone several times, although they were originally supposed to only go a single time to limit their exposure to radiation.

Up to 30% of Chernobyl’s uranium content went into the atmosphere, prompting the Soviet Union to evacuate some 350,000 people and establish a 19-mile (30-km) wide exclusion area. To reduce the risk of contamination, Soviet authorities tried to shoot local pets, but some escaped, and their descendants still inhabit the area to this day.

Despite the attempted cover-up and initial gross negligence of the Soviet authorities, the government implemented extensive protection measures over the following years. In particular, to reduce the spread of radioactive contamination, authorities built a giant sarcophagus around the reactor. The initial sarcophagus was further enclosed by another one by 2017. It’s estimated that nuclear clean-up will only be completed in 2065.

Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 2017. Image credits: Jorge Franganillo.

Chernobyl now

Fast forward three decades, and Chernobyl has become an unlikely wildlife haven. Radiation levels have dropped substantially (though they still remain dangerous), and Prypiat is a ghost town. The absence of humans, it seems, has spurred nature to reclaim the land.

Plants, mushrooms, and animals can accumulate dangerous levels of radiation, and researchers weren’t sure how nature would cope with the fallout. But they seem to be doing fine.

A nearby forest was almost destroyed by the Chernobyl disaster. The “Red Forest” had almost all its trees killed by the radiation, with the leaves turning red (hence the name). So researchers were shocked when, after installing willife cameras in the area, they found a thriving ecosystem despite the radiation.

Inhabited by over 200 species, including bison, brown bears, lynxes, horses, and countless birds, the Red Forest is now a wildlife hotspot. Even with all the radiation, the lack of human activity was enough to spur a thriving ecosystem — which makes you think just how much our presence is affecting nature around us. This is not to say that the radiation doesn’t have a negative effect, but it’s remarkable just how quickly nature can heal.

European bison, boreal lynx, moose, and brown bear photographed inside Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (Ukraine). Image credits: Proyecto TREE/Sergey Gaschack.

In other news, Chernobyl is once again producing energy — but a different type of energy this time. A Ukrainian-German company has built and opened a solar farm at Chernobyl, a mere hundred meters away from the concrete dome that seals the nuclear power plant’s reactor. Since there’s so much land there and so few ways to use it, the Ukrainian government decided to try and turn Chernobyl into an unlikely energy hub. The area has really good solar coverage and is an excellent spot for renewable energy. For now, the solar plant is producing about a third of what the former nuclear reactor could output. Other similar projects are also planned in the area.

It’s still illegal to live in the exclusion area, but that doesn’t mean no one’s there. A few people have actually moved there, fleeing from war-torn parts of Ukraine. Illegal trips to Prypiat are also organized from time to time, and there are also guards and workers from the solar plant in this area.

Dogs also inhabit the exclusion area — most likely the descendants of the pets that escaped the explosion aftermath, or strays in the area. Their biggest enemy isn’t radiation, but the cold winter and the wild animals. Still, the population of dogs has now grown to around 1,000. Malnourishment is reportedly rampant among them and few make it past 4-5 years of age, although local guards do feed the scraps from time to time. Authorities and veterinarian doctors have embarked on a humanitarian project to spay and neuter most of these dogs, in an attempt to limit their numbers and ensure a healthier, more sustainable community.

Chernobyl aftermath

Reactors 5 and 6 were never completed at Chernobyl — construction was stopped after the explosion at Reactor 4.

A recent study showed that no Chernobyl radiation was passed to children — but that doesn’t mean that new generations don’t feel the effect. Chernobyl raised already heightened concerns about nuclear energy and the disaster that took place ten years ago at Fukushima made things worse.

Of course, Fukushima happened due to an extremely rare natural disaster, and Chernobyl’s explosion was largely due to a flawed type of reactor. But critics of nuclear energy also pointed out that the inherent reactor dangers were greatly exacerbated by human errors — and human error can always happen.

The accident raised concerns about Soviet safety practices and secrecy. The attempted cover-up was a political disaster that accelerated the Soviet collapse. But the damage had been done in terms of public trust in nuclear energy.

Image credits: calflier001 / Wiki Commons.

The year after Chernobyl, Italy had a referendum, and as a result of that referendum, the country began phasing out its nuclear plants in 1988. The decision was reversed in 2008, but a subsequent 2011 referendum reiterated Italians’ strong objections to nuclear power.

In Germany, the Chernobyl explosion led to the creation of the anti-nuclear movement in Germany, which culminated in the decision to end the use of nuclear power that was made by the 1998–2005 Schröder government.

Nuclear energy is one of the safest types of energy out there. It’s more than 1,000 times safer than coal, about 400 times safer than natural gas, and just slightly more dangerous than wind and solar energy — but compared to fossil fuels, there’s no debate. The problem is that when nuclear energy harms people, it’s very visible, whereas the damage caused by fossil fuels (often through pollution) is hidden and insidious.

If we want to transition to a sustainable, low-emissions future, it’s likely that we will need nuclear energy. The spectrum of Chernobyl, however, still looms, and many see it as something that could happen again. Although that type of reactor isn’t built anymore, and although the technical capabilities of nuclear reactors nowadays are far superior to Chernobyl, the idea of a new Chernobyl disaster is enough to make nuclear energy a no-go for many.

Remember Chernobyl? A new waterway could bring nuclear runoff back to the surface

A river running past the Chernobyl nuclear reactor is currently being dredged to create a 2,000-kilometer shipping route linking the Baltic and Black seas. The project was widely questioned by scientists and conservationists, who claim radioactive sludge from the 1986 nuclear disaster could resurface due to the work.

Aerial photo with a drone over the River Pripyat. Image credit: Birdlife.

The waterway would go from Gdańsk in Poland, through southern Belarus to Kherson in Ukraine. It would be Europe’s longest waterway, stretching 25 times the length of the Panama Canal. Government ministries and a coalition of organizations are pushing through the construction. Small vessels can already pass through it.

The project involves the dredging of the entire Pripyat river, which serpents within 2.5 kilometers of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. The river has already been dredged in at least seven places, five of which are just 10 kilometers from the reactor, according to the Save Polesia coalition, which groups NGOs against the project.

Polesia, an area in Eastern Europe often called ‘Europe’s Amazon’ is host to the continent’s largest wetland wilderness and home to endangered European wildlife. The dredging would also affect the most sensitive parts of Polesia and change the areas’ flood regime, the coalition argues. The waterway would dry up drivers, damage landscapes, impact wildlife, and destroy the livelihoods of local communities.

The Pripyat River is one of most pristine waterways in Europe and is an integral part of the biodiversity of Polesia. More than 90% of all birds in Belarus are found in Polesia and there are a number of unique ecosystems, black alder forests. Birdlife and WWF estimate 12 wildlife reserves would be affected by the waterway.

The dredging also goes against recommendations from the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) to keep the Chernobyl exclusion zone undisturbed because of the contamination from the explosion. In 1986, a blast occurred on one of the reactors in the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, leading to the nuclear disaster.

A study by the French organization ACRO showed 28 million people downstream who depend on the Dnieper River for water and food could be at increased radiation risk. Pripyat River and the Kyiv artificial lake will become ongoing sources of radioactive contaminants as annual dredging will be needed for the operation of the waterway.

“Constructing the E40 will have a radiological impact on the construction workers and the population depending on the rivers. The IAEA recommends to leave the contaminated sediments in the Kyiv reservoir in place, to avoid exposure of the population downstream. In this context the construction of the E40 is not feasible,” ACRO said in a statement.

The Ukrainian government commissioned the dredging work of the Polish section of the river for almost $430 million to the company Sobi, which started work in July. A feasibility study was jointly commissioned by the government and the company but NGOs said it was incomplete and it didn’t include an environmental analysis.

The study failed to properly analyze the implications of radioactive contamination from dredging inside the exclusion zone, which is 100km upstream, they argued. Public participation wasn’t allowed, and alternatives to meet the strategic objective of better freight connections between the Black and Baltic Seas weren’t explored.

Dmitrij Nadeev, a manager at Sobi, told The Guardian the company commissioned research on radiation and took soil samples. The study showed the work “can be done safely” and workers were provided with personal protective equipment. Still, Nadeev declined to share the radiation study.

The NGOs against the project argue that the transport of goods using the waterway would be “slower, more expensive, more polluting, and less reliable” than electric rail. They acknowledge Ukraine needs better transportation links with other countries but claim the priority should be to invest in the existing railway network.

Ariel Brunner, Birdlife International’s Senior Head of Policy for Europe and Central Asia, said in a statement: “Digging up radioactive material and sending it down the river into heavily populated areas is irresponsible. Indeed the entire E40 is an ill-conceived and potentially devastating project that is being pushed forward.”

Chernobyl has turned into a thriving habitat for hundreds of species

Without disruptive human activity, the ‘exclusion zone’ of Chernobyl has become a green oasis teeming with life. Defying expectations, the heavily irradiated area has become a vibrant wildlife hub.

In a way, Chernobyl is one big tragic science lab. Image credits: Yasemin Atalay/Unsplash.

A tragic accident

The fateful day of 26 April, 1986, will forever remain in history as the date of the disastrous Chernobyl explosion. The largest nuclear accident in history, the Chernobyl explosion emitted more than 400 times the radiation from the bomb dropped over Hiroshima during World War II. It’s unclear just how many people were killed directly and indirectly by the event, but the kill count is huge. More than 350,000 people were evacuated from the site and never returned.

The environment was also dramatically affected by the explosion. The infamous “Red Forest” was closest to the nuclear plant, and took the brunt of the radiation. Almost all its trees were killed by the radiation, with the leaves turning red (hence the name). All but a handful of animals were also killed, and the survivors all had taken high doses of radiation. Most scientists believed that the area would be abandoned by wildlife, becoming a ‘desert’ for centuries.

They were wrong.

Just 33 years after the explosion, the area is inhabited by over 200 species, including bison, brown bears, lynxes, horses, and countless birds. Even with all the radiation, the lack of human activity was enough to spur a thriving ecosystem.

Defying the odds

European bison, boreal lynx, moose and brown bear photographed inside Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (Ukraine). Image credits: Proyecto TREE/Sergey Gaschack.

The area around Chernobyl is not exactly a safe space. There’s still a dangerous amount of radiation, and spending more than a day or two can be quite risky. However, several groups of scientists were curious to see how the wildlife at Chernobyl was faring. After all, it’s a rare chance to study a unique environment, with conditions that aren’t present anywhere else in the world.

In Portsmouth, England, about 30 researchers from Europe met up to present their results on the wildlife in Chernobyl. It all pointed to the same thing: the environment seemed to have recovered greatly and life there had started to develop adaptations to living in high levels of radiation. For instance, researchers studying amphibians, one of the more delicate groups of creatures, have observed well-established communities in the area, which are showing some signs of adaptations, such as turning darker.

Motion cameras installed in the area have also captured images of large mammals such as bison, wolves, moose, and even horses (Przewalski horses, the world’s last free horses), which seem to be doing fine and increasing in numbers despite the radiation levels in the exclusion area.

However, that’s not to say that the radiation doesn’t have a negative effect. Insects tend to have a shorter lifespan in the area, and some birds are showing higher rates of albinism and physical malformations.

Images taken with some of the camera traps reveal stunningly active animal communities.

It’s not exactly clear why the animals around Chernobyl are doing so well, although researchers have a few theories. The first one is that animals are simply more resilient to radiation than anticipated, or they are developing adaptations much faster than expected. This would be great news — but the other theory isn’t nearly as optimistic.

Simply put, what makes Chernobyl different nowadays is the presence of radiation and the absence of humans. If the animals are doing better than in other parts of the world, it could mean that the environmental pressure generated by humans is larger than a nuclear explosion — a revealing vision of the type of impact we’re having on the world.

The future of Chernobyl

It’s not exactly clear what will happen to the area now. It’s still a contaminated area, but in recent years, interest regarding Chernobyl has spiked from more than one group. Scientists are interested in studying it because it serves as a natural laboratory. The site has also developed into a bit of a tourist attraction, for small groups interested in a different kind of experience. Officially, some 70,000 tourists have visited the area in 2018 alone, though the real number is likely much higher. There are also plans for developing a solar panel field in the area, as well as expanding forestry. Last year, there was even an art gallery and a techno party inside of Pripyat, the now-abandoned city which hosted Chernobyl.

As weird as it sounds, in the long run, we might have to think of ways to conserve the thriving wildlife in Chernobyl and ensure that this unlikely oasis continues to survive without human interference.

Chernobyl is transforming into a massive solar plant — and it’s almost done

Chernobyl, the worst nuclear accident in human history, is about to get a complete makeover. A new, almost completed project, will provide the local grid with one megawatt of renewable solar power.

The nearby city of Pripyat has become a ghost town. Over 100,000 people were evacuated in 1986 when Chernobyl exploded. Image via Pixabay.

The Chernobyl Disaster was one of mankind’s worst fears. Nuclear power, this tremendous tool, backfired — ironically, not because of a scientific or technological failure, but due to an operating failure. Contamination from the Chernobyl accident was scattered irregularly depending on weather conditions, affecting virtually all of Eastern Europe and going as far as Switzerland or Greece. As for Pripyat, the nearby town which had a population of about 50,000 people, it was completely evacuated, becoming a ghost town. Chernobyl was sealed and the area around it became a black hole in the middle of Ukraine.

Now, all that might change.

Engineers have installed 3,800 photovoltaic panels across an area the size of two football pitches, just 100 meters from the containment zone — the giant concrete sarcophagus which covered the nuclear reactor.

That’s enough to fulfill the needs of a small town of about 2,000 homes, and eventually, Rodina (the company behind this project) says the area could generate 100 times more energy.

Rodina isn’t the only company interested in investing in Chernobyl. In 2016, two Chinese companies announced a plan to build a huge 1 GW solar farm in Chernobyl’s exclusion zone, although little progress seems to have been made. The French company Energie SA also announced plans to conduct a pre-feasibility study for a billion-euro solar plant near Chernobyl, according to Ars Technica.

The reasoning is fairly simple: first of all, the land is cheap, for obvious reasons — it’s literally a radioactive wasteland. Secondly, Ukraine is offering “relatively high feed-in tariffs,” which makes investing in the area much more attractive. Also, the area is already connected to the grid, thanks to the previously existing infrastructure from the nuclear power plant. It’s still extremely challenging to build anything there, but at the end of the day, it’s not impossible. The new containment dome, completed in 2016, helps greatly by preventing further contamination from the nuclear plant.

For the Ukrainian authorities, it also makes a lot of sense. It’s not like you can use the area for anything else — the area is still radioactive, and the soil is greatly contaminated, making agriculture impossible for thousands of years in the future.

Unlike other projects, Rodina’s $1.2 million investment is nearing completion. It hasn’t started producing electricity yet, but we can probably expect to see it kick off sometime this year. There’s some poetic justice in having Chernobyl once again produce energy — but this time, from the Sun.

Radioactive boars spark concern in Sweden

A boar likely originating from the Chernobyl area of Ukraine was shot after it was discovered to have 10 times more radiation than established safe levels.

A non-radioactive boar from Germany. Image credits: Michael Gäbler.

When the Chernobyl disaster occurred in 1986, it showed mankind just how careful it needs to be with nuclear energy: hundreds were killed directly, thousands indirectly, and exposing even more to dangerous radiation. To this day, several European countries still test boars, mushrooms, or other organisms likely to accumulate radionuclides from Chernobyl.

Sweden was one of the countries most affected by the fallout. Masses of air moved dangerous elements towards Sweden, and rain brought them down to. After Chernobyl, a toxic cloud of radioactive iodine and caesium-137 rained over the Scandinavian country.

Radiation levels are still high in wild creatures like elk and reindeer — and, most notably, in boars. Levels have increased significantly in recent years and according to The Local, more and more radioactive boars are appearing in the north of the country. A recent analysis from a boar shot in August showed a radiation level of 13,000 becquerel per kilogram (Bq/kg) — the limit set by Sweden’s Food Agency is 1,500 Bq/kg.

Ulf Frykman, an environmental consultant, says things are only going to get worse for the local boars — and for meat consumers.

“When they reach our worst areas, we’re expecting maybe 40,000 Bq/kg — that’s starting to look like 1986 for us all over again,” Mr. Frykman said.

This is not an isolated case. Out of the 30 samples they’ve tested this year, just 6 had levels within the acceptable limit. It is believed that radiation levels in the soil are very high, and this will further increase the radiation levels in boars even more.

“Wild boar root around in the earth searching for food, and all the caesium stays in the ground,” Mr Frykman explained. “If you look at deer and elk, they eat up in the bushes and you do not have not so much caesium there.”

Wild boars have slowly been moving towards the north of Sweden. They were hunted to extinction in the 1700s, and were then reintroduced to the south of the country in the 1970s. Since then, they’ve slowly expanded their territory, aided in part by rising temperatures. Locals say the radioactive boars are already causing problems — not by being radioactive… but just by being boars, digging holes in the field and eating a lot of food.

At the end of the day, radioactive or not, boars will be boars.

China is building a huge solar plant at Chernobyl

When one door closes, another one opens.

Image credits: D. Markosian: One Day in the Life of Chernobyl, VOA News.

A new sun might emerge from the ashes of a nuclear winter. Well, that’s probably pushing the metaphor a bit too much, but there is a bit of truth there, as two Chinese companies are trying to make the best of a bad situation and have started work on a giant solar plant in the abandoned Chernobyl area.

“There will be remarkable social benefits and economic ones as we try to renovate the once damaged area with green and renewable energy,” said Shu Hua, the chairman of GCL System Integration Technology (GCL-SI), one of the firms tasked with the project.

Chinese companies have a long history of reconditioning contaminated land and fitting it with renewable energy, though Chernobyl is a special task. The reactor itself is due to be covered by a $1.6 billion steel-clad arch, and is surrounded by a 2,600 square km (1,000 square mile) exclusion zone of forest and marshland.

So far, the exact location hasn’t yet been revealed, but according to Reuters, the project has already passed several preliminary regulation checks.

“Ukraine has passed a law allowing the site to be developed for agriculture and other things, so that means (the radiation) is under control,” said the manager, who did not want to give his name because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

China is taking strides to become the world’s leader in renewables with 43 gigawatts of capacity by the end of last year. It is also the world’s top manufacturer, with 72% of the world’s solar power components being produced in China in 2015.



New high-tech shelter reminds us that Chernobyl is still deadly, thirty years after the meltdown

On Wednesday, a new high-tech shelter was set in place over Chernobyl’s reactor 4, the site where, on April 1986, one of the worst nuclear meltdowns in history took place.


The NSC arch slides in place.
Image credits EBRD.

Called the New Safe Confinement, or NSC for short, the new shelter is meant to address the shortcomings of the original Sarcophagus erected just after the accident took place 30 years ago. As it was too hazardous to build the NSC on-site, the whole structure was assembled at a distance then slowly inched into place over the reactor on a pair of tracks parallel to the original shelter. Standing an impressive 354ft (108m) tall and 843ft (257m) wide, the NSC had the brief distinction of being the largest mobile metal structure in the world. Now that it’s in place, the NSC will take over the task of insulating reactor 4 from the world.

Entombing the tomb

Thirty years ago, when it exploded, Soviet authorities evacuated a 30-kilometer area around Chernobyl. But the reactor sent clouds of radioactive particles over much of Europe, particularly Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. The emergency works to encase the reactor were understandably done with speed in mind, to limit exposure — still, the World Nuclear Association lists that at least 28 people died as a result of the accident and another 237 workers in the cleanup and shelter construction suffered from acute radiation poisoning, with 134 of those cases being confirmed later.

The structure also suffered from its hasty construction, being plagued by corrosion and leaks. By the late 90s, parts of the Sarcophagus was at danger of “imminent collapse” according to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). This is where the NSC steps in.

It’s leak-proof, corrosion-resistant, and made of non-magnetic steel. The external cladding can weather a class 3 tornado or a magnitude 6.0 earthquake, while it’s internal walls are smooth “minimize the risk of dust deposition and accumulation”. Experts are confident that water infiltration in the contaminated area will now have a chance to dry out, and the NSC’s double walls should prevent any radiological emissions in the future. An “active corrosion-control system” has also been installed: after the two halves of the NSC were connected in 2014, the space between them was dried and pressurized, with a ventilation system in place to prevent humidity levels in the shelter from exceeding 40%.

Two remote-controlled, specifically designed cranes have been placed in the NSC Which will dismantle the reactor’s ruins and Sarcophagus. An auxiliary building, where humans will work, was erected to contain all the control systems for the NSC. Now, all that remains is for detailed work (which will be carried out throughout 2017) to make the shelter airtight.

The New Safe Confinement cost roughly €1.5 billion ($1.58 billion) to build. the EBRD and some 40 countries pitched in to fund the project.

Now my question is, what will happen to Chernobyl‘s mutant, radiation gulping fungi?

Chernobyl is to become the world’s largest solar power plant

The Ukranian government plans to turn Chernobyl, the site of the world’s most famous nuclear meltdown, into a sprawling solar power plant — the largest in the world.

Image credits publicdomainpictures

Since the meltdown on April 26, 1986, no one’s been able to find any good uses for Chernobyl. A 1,600 square mile area was drenched in radiation and deemed an “exclusion zone,” so everyone was evacuated after the clean-up efforts were concluded and the plant was sealed in its ubiquitous sarcophagus. The buildings, goods, and infrastructure in the area were abandoned so fast that the city looks like time froze there 30 years ago — albeit with a Falloutesque look. Since we left, nature took over, and for the most part, is thriving in our absence (though the microbes that decompose dead organic matter seem to be having a hard time living here.)

In a recent interview, however, Ukraine’s ecology minister Ostap Semerak said that the government is negotiating with two US investment firms and four Canadian energy companies to develop Chernobyl’s solar potential. The area is uniquely suited for the purpose — the land is extremely cheap, much of the required infrastructure, such as roads are already built. Even better, the power lines that served the old 4GW reactor are still useable.

“The Chernobyl site has really good potential for renewable energy,” said Ukraine’s environment minister Ostap Semerak during an interview in London. “We already have high-voltage transmission lines that were previously used for the nuclear stations, the land is very cheap and we have many people trained to work at power plants. We have normal European priorities, which means having the best standards with the environment and clean energy ambitions.”

PVTech reports that Ukraine is pushing for a 1GW solar plant built in a 6-month construction cycle. This would make it the world’s largest plant of the type if built today — similar plants are in development today in Egipt, India or China among others — but none have been completed yet. A 1GW solar project – based upon a global market price of $1-1.5/W for large scale development – would cost between $1 and $1.5 billion dollars. The short time-frame for construction would require significantly more resources to be deployed to complete the project on time, however.

But that might not be a problem. The European Bank for Reconstruction & Development has expressed an interest in supporting the project, “so long as there are viable investment proposals and all other environmental matters and risks can be addressed to the bank’s satisfaction.” One issue that still hasn’t been considered is what constraints will be imposed on the workers. How much exposure will be considered “safe” for them? Will they have to wear radioactive suits while they work? And how will this translate into building costs? These issues will have to be settled to everyone’s satisfaction before work can commence.

Hopefully, they will. There’s something close to poetic justice in turning the site of probably the worst industrial accident in human history into a solar power plant, one of the safest and cleanest energy production technologies we have.


Truffles found to be surprisingly resistant to radioactivity

Plants and mushrooms growing sometimes accumulate dangerous levels of radioactivity. But until now, this hasn’t been confirmed for truffles, and researchers wanted to see whether truffles too accumulate radioactive material – the results were quite surprising.

Miro is a trained truffle dog that belongs to Simon Egli, a co-author of the Biogeosciences paper based at Swiss Federal Research Institute WSL. He's pictured here with a Burgundy truffle he found in Switzerland. CREDIT Simon Egli, WSL

Miro is a trained truffle dog that belongs to Simon Egli, a co-author of the Biogeosciences paper based at Swiss Federal Research Institute WSL. He’s pictured here with a Burgundy truffle he found in Switzerland.
Simon Egli, WSL

The Chernobyl accident was a catastrophic nuclear accident that occurred on 26 April 1986 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the town of Pripyat, in Ukraine (then practically under the USSR). It is one of only two classified as a level 7 event (the maximum classification) on the International Nuclear Event Scale. The disaster released dramatic quantities of radioactive particles, especially caesium-137 (137Cs). Transported by winds and deposited by heavy rainfall, the caesium spread throughout much of Eastern Europe.

“Much of the continent’s topsoil layers are still radioactively contaminated,” says Ulf Büntgen, Head of the Dendroecology Group at the Swiss Federal Research Institute (WSL) and lead author of the study.

However, subterranean Burgundy or summer truffles (Tuber aestivum), don’t seem to mind it that much. The truffles, classified as a delicacy, exhibited very low levels of caesium.

“We were very positively surprised that all specimens we analysed exhibited insignificant values of 137Cs,” says Büntgen.

This comes as very surprising. Like other mushrooms, truffles take their nutrients from the topsoil, where radioactive material also tends to gather. This has been confirmed for a number of other mushrooms and plants, as well as in the animals that consume them. They set out and analysed 82 Burgundy truffles collected across Europe between 2010 and 2014. The samples were harvested by trained truffle dogs, and all of them, without exception, did not exhibit dangerous levels of radioactivity.

“Sampling sites were defined by the success of various truffle dogs. We were trying to get as many fruit bodies as possible from as wide an area as possible,” explains Büntgen. “The resulting pattern is by far not optimal but indeed good enough for a first assessment and interpretation.”

Why this happens is still an open question. There doesn’t seem to be anything biologically different about the truffles, but obviously there is. In the end, this could actually help us learn more about fungus. It probably has something to do with the way they absorb nutrients from the soil, but that remains to be seen.

Elks photographer in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Image: Valeriy Yurko/University of Portsmouth

Wildlife flourishes in Chernobyl’s post-apocalyptic exclusion zone

In the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion in 1987, hundreds of thousand had to move immediately without notice. Their lives changed forever. Many didn’t have time to pack anything, as documented by the ghost towns around the fallout site still littered with toys, valuable items and other personal belongings. But while humans had much to suffer, the same can’t be said about the wildlife. In the almost four decades since the dramatic disaster, wildlife and vegetation has simply sprung to life like never before. In some instances, there are more wildlife per square meter than in some of the busiest protected natural parks in neighboring Belarus. Turns out wildlife doesn’t mind that much radiation – what they mind is humans.

Elks photographer in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Image: Valeriy Yurko/University of Portsmouth

Elks photographer in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Image: Valeriy Yurko/University of Portsmouth

The news was reported by a team of researchers who surveyed 1,600 square miles close to the Ukrainian-Belorussian border. The researchers used all sorts of methods to assess the mammal population from old school counting of tracks by foot, to helicopter observations, to camera traps. These went on for two years between  2008 and 2010. In 1987, shortly after the explosion at the nuclear power plant, scientists started counting wildlife and found populations were poor. Not necessarily because of the fallout, though, since the heavily industrialized area left little room for wildlife to expand. Since then, however, mammals have grown to impressive numbers. Within ten years, every animal population in the exclusion zone had at least doubled, all while animals in other former Soviet countries are on the demise at the hand of habitat loss, deforestation and over hunting. Take brown bears and the lynx, for instance. These haven’t been seen for decades before Chernobyl toppled. Now, they can easily be encountered.

Wolves as seen by camera traps. Image: Tree Project

Wolves as seen by camera traps. Image: Tree Project

camera trap deer Chernobyl

Image: Tree Project

According to the census, populations for most species were as large as in any of Belarus’ four national parks. With one notable exception, though: wolves. The apex predators were seven times more numerous. This is particularly telling since if there a lot of wolves, there should be a lot of food too: elk, boar, deer and so on, but also plants and insects. For instance, once busy Ukrainian towns are now in ruins, but the rust of socialist buildings has been offset by growing vines and whole forests. Nature has taken over, and all in a matter of decades. It’s quite impressive, the researchers report in Current Biology.

“What we do, our everyday habitation of an area – agriculture, forestry – they’ve damaged wildlife more than the world’s worst nuclear accident,” said Prof Jim Smith, professor of environmental science, University of Portsmouth, and one of the paper’s authors.

“It doesn’t say that nuclear accidents aren’t bad, of course they are. But it illustrates that the things we do everyday, the human population pressure, damages the environment. It’s kind of obvious but it’s an amazing illustration of it.”

Wild boars are reportedly roaming freely on the streets of ghost towns and villages in Chernobyl's exclusion zone. Image: Tree Project

Wild boars are reportedly roaming freely on the streets of ghost towns and villages in Chernobyl’s exclusion zone. Image: Tree Project

What the study didn’t assess, however, was the individual health of animals. While the animals seem to be doing very well, the radiation fallout most certainly is affecting their biology. The explosion at the Vladimir Ilyich Lenin nuclear power plant released more radiation than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and thousands of humans were killed in the aftermath by radiation sickness and cancer over many years.  Forest food products such as berries, mushrooms, and game contain particularly high levels of long-lived radioactive caesium and this contamination is expected to remain high for several decades.

“We can never trace back one disease to one single cause,” says  Gerd Ludwig, a photographer who has been documenting the Chernobyl fallout for decades. “Even the numbers of people who will eventually die of cancer related diseases caused by Chernobyl are disputed–the UN initially put the number at 4,000, then 6,000, then 8,000. Now they’re at 9,000. Greenpeace and other reputable environmental agencies have put the numbers at 100,000 and more. Where the number really is, we will never know, because the 800,000 people that were brought in from all over the Soviet Union are dispersed back all over the former Soviet Republics. There is no record of who was there, who got sick and how. We will never know.”

A haunting view of Chernobyl, captured by aerial drones

For a 60 Minutes report that aired earlier this month, filmmaker Danny Cooke spent a week exploring abandoned cities Chernobyl and nearby Pripyat. Pripyat was just preparing to open a new amusement park just days before the nuclear meltdown happened at Chernobyl.

Now, Cooke has posted a a compilation entitled “Postcards from Pripyat, Chernobyl” — a mix of drone footage and traditional cinematography. According to The Guardian, this is the first time we’ve seen footage of the area from the air. There’s something incredibly emotional, yet disturbing about the area, as Cooke himself says:

“There was something serene, yet highly disturbing about this place. Time has stood still and there are memories of past happenings floating around us.”

Chernobyl was the site of a catastrophic nuclear accident that occurred on 26 April 1986 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, then officially the Ukrainian SSR, part of the Soviet Union. It was the worst worst nuclear power plant accident in history in terms of cost and casualties. The battle to contain the contamination and avert a greater catastrophe ultimately involved over 500,000 workers and cost an estimated 18 billion rubles (18 billion $USD), but the long term effect of cancer and deformations are still accounted for.

Dodgem cars at the abandoned Pripyat amusement park near Chernobyl. Photograph: Timothy Swope/Alamy

You can also watch the full 60 minutes report here.

Fallen trees in Chernobyl's Red Forest. Photo: T.A.Mousseau & A.P. Møller

Trees in Chernobyl aren’t dying and this is a problem

Fallen trees in Chernobyl's Red Forest. Photo: T.A.Mousseau & A.P. Møller

Fallen trees in Chernobyl’s Red Forest. Photo: T.A.Mousseau & A.P. Møller

Some thirty years after Chernobyl’s nuclear plant meltdown that caused an international incident, scientists have yet to assess the full blown damage the radioactive disaster has caused. While the rest of the world has moved on, ever since the disaster the area surrounding the former nuclear plant has remained largely unchanged, even the plants and trees there seem to have stayed the same. Not like your usual backyard tree that flowers and withers  with the seasons; in Chernobyl nature has altered its course and refuses to die easily.

Tim Mousseau, a professor of biology at the University of South Carolina and colleagues visiting the area found that trees, plants and leaves at the contaminated site don’t decay at nearly the same rate as plants elsewhere. Clearly, the ecosystem at Chernobyl was severely altered by the meltdown, but it was unclear until now what effects the radioactive leakage had on the vegetation’s natural cycle.

“We were stepping over all these dead trees on the ground that had been killed by the initial blast,” Mousseau said. “Years later, these tree trunks were in pretty good shape. If a tree had fallen in my backyard, it would be sawdust in 10 years or so.”

The radioactive forest

The researchers based most of their in the infamous Red Forest – a wooden region surrounding Chernobyl where threes turned a reddish-brown color before dying. Even after a few decades though, the fallen tree trunks have remained largely unchanged. Somehow the decay process has been altered and delayed, like a processed hamburger compared to fresh home-cooked food.

“Apart from a few ants, the dead tree trunks were largely unscathed when we first encountered them,” Mousseau, who is also co-director of the Chernobyl and Fukushima Research Initiatives at the University of South Carolina, told Smithsonian.

To unravel this startling puzzle, the researchers collected hundreds of samples of leaf litter from forest floors that were not contaminated by radiation and stuffed the leaves into bags lined with panty hose to keep out insects. Each of the bag was then carefully distributed around Chernobyl, as well as uncontaminated site for control purposes.

The results are no less amazing: the samples that were placed in highly contaminated areas decayed up to 40% harder than samples that were placed in uncontaminated sites. Decomposition varied proportionately according to the level of contamination for each area.

It’s because fewer bacteria and microorganisms can survive the radiation

Many plants that die along with the leaves that fall from trees in the autumn will all rot down and become part of the forest floor. They are decomposed by fungi, bacteria and many different species of invertebrate. Fungi unseen from the surface can spread through the entire forest floor, living on the dead leaves and twigs that have fallen from the trees above. They can extract many of the useful substances for their own benefit, helping to rot down the dead plant material in the process. Many of the chemicals which remain after decomposition get dissolved in the soil and become nutrients for living plants including newly germinated seedlings. These nutrients can be taken up by the plant’s roots in the soil and are used to help make new leaves, twigs, branches, roots, flowers and seeds.

[READ] Chernobyl fungus feeds on nuclear radiation


Clearly, at Chernobyl the microorganisms aren’t doing their job properly because, at their own hand, they’ve been killed off by radiation too. This is in line with previous research which found that cancer patients who had undergone radiation therapy had a lower population of helpful bacteria in the intestines, leading to health issues.

Chernobyl and all living things around it are basically screwed and will stay that way for a long, long time. There’s a more immediate peril lurking, according to the researchers. Because the forest floor is decaying at such a slow rate, there is a growing concern that there could be a catastrophic fire in the coming years. It’s not only that the fire would have a lot of material to burn, it’s all the nature of the wood and other organic compounds that might get set ablaze – everything’s contaminated!

“That would end up moving radiocesium and other contaminants via smoke into populated areas,” Mousseau said.

“This litter accumulation that we measured, which is likely a direct consequence of reduced microbial decomposing activity, is like kindling,” Mousseau added. “It’s dry, light and burns quite readily. It adds to the fuel, as well as makes it more likely that catastrophically sized forest fires might start.”


Engineers try to seal Chernobyl with a giant arch

Chernobyl is still one of the most radioactive places on the face of the Earth, and authorities are working on a huge program to reduce any further risks of contamination. Work began in recent days to remove, bit by bit, the giant chimney protruding from the Chernobyl nuclear power station.


The Chernobyl disaster was a catastrophic nuclear accident that occurred on 26 April 1986 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine (back then in the USSR). It is widely considered to have been the worst nuclear power plant accident in history, and is one of only two classified as a level 7 event (the maximum classification) on the International Nuclear Event Scale (the other being the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011). Now, if you were to go to Chernobyl (something which of course isn’t recommended) you’d see a half-built arch of gargantuan proportions looming over the decaying industrial landscape of cooling towers and power lines.

“Nothing like this has ever been attempted before,” says Don Kelly, 57, a nuclear industry veteran from Washington State, as he walks under the arch.

It’s definitely one of the largest engineering projects ever attempted, meant to seal off hundreds of tons of nuclear fuel and dust buried inside reactor number four.

chernobyl 2

At 110m (360ft) tall, it’s so big that the Statue of Liberty would easily fit inside. When you consider that it’s also 257m (843ft) wide, you could fit a few hundreds Statues of Liberty inside there. Nothing like this has ever been attempted before in such an environment, but engineers claim they’re not worried about it, especially when they think about the importance of the work.

“It’s not dangerous, it’s just very, very difficult,” says Philippe Casse, 61, the site manager. “You have to organise everything to avoid the risk to people. But it is worth doing. I’m not just here to make a living, I’m here to make Chernobyl safe.”

chernobyl 3

The work is paid for by the G8 nations, including British taxpayers, and the work is being done by Western corporations assisted by Ukrainian companies. Even after almost 30 years, the site still remains a threat for Ukrainian people.

Eventually, when the arch is done and the project is finished, the plan to use giant cranes to lift out the remains of the reactor and what’s left of the fuel, which “melted and flowed like lava into chambers beneath it”. But there’s a big problem: doing that would cause the cranes to become highly radioactive quickly, and there’s a big chance that they would gradually stop working. Also, even if they manage to pick up all these radioactive waste, what could they do with it? There is also still no suitable nuclear waste dump in the country, and no solution seems in sight – at least for the first part of the century.

“There is no money at the moment. “It could be done in 50 years’ time. Perhaps there will be the technology to solve the problem then.”

Radioactive toxicity

Particle accelerator can transmute radioactive waste and drastically lower half-life decay

A schematic of the MYRRHA (Multi-purpose hYbrid Research Reactor for High-tech Applications) concept allows for industrial scale treatment of nuclear waste.

A schematic of the MYRRHA (Multi-purpose hYbrid Research Reactor for High-tech Applications) concept allows for industrial scale treatment of nuclear waste.

In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster, and as always Chernobyl, as anti-nuclear manifestos are quick to remind every time nuclear powered energy is concerned, there seems to be a sort of stigma applied to nuclear power. Countries are revising their policies –  some for the better, being long overdue, while other simply limit nuclear power rather precariously. Besides the actual chain reaction, meltdown or other nuclear hazard event which might possibly occur, there’s an other big issue with nuclear power and that’s  its byproduct – nuclear waste. A novel technique involving a particle accelerator which can create fast neutrons, in the process lowering the half-life of waste from hundreds of thousands of years to mere hundreds, might re-balance the odds back to nuclear, however. Nuclear energy might be in for a come back.

The idea that you can you stick dangerous radioactive material, that stays radioactive for even millions of years, in a lead can and hope that it will never leak in the environment is preposterous. Still, this is the only or primary way nuclear waste from facilities around the world is handled, and of course this has attracted a wave of unpopularity.

Scientists at the Belgium nuclear research center SCK CEN in Mol have developed a technology which uses a particle accelerator as a neutron source, in an attempt to make nuclear waste much less unfriendly to the environment. The idea, in small simple lines, goes like this:  you alter the geometry of the reactor chamber such that neutrons produced by the nuclear reaction don’t multiply in other subsequent reaction by having them escape the reactor vessel. In the meantime, to  sustain the nuclear fission process you pump neutrons from a spallation source, which is a material that can produce lots of fast-moving neutrons when you hit it with high energy proton. If cut out the accelerator,t he fission reaction cannot sustain itself , so there isn’t any peril of a meltdown or chain reaction disaster.

Radioactive toxicity

Also, the waste nuclear fuel is transmuted into fission products with much shorter half-lives by a few orders of magnitude, which makes burring waste for a few hundred years actually feasible and safe.  A prototype of the system should be up and running by the early 2020s. Hopefully, this might put nuclear energy back on track as the leading clean, safe and efficient form of energy.

For more details on this very important subject, I’d like to invite you to read the Mol scientists’ paper from CERN.


Chernnobyl fungus feeds on nuclear radiation

You know Chernobyl, right? The place of the biggest nuclear accident in the world? The are is so radioactive nobody lives in the vicinity anymore, and nearby plants are suffering major amounts of radiation. However, not everybody is sad about this event; a type of fungi (mushrooms) possess an ability beyond imagination: they can take the lethal radiation and use it as a source of energy to feed and grow. Researchers have called them radiotrophic fungus.

For some 500 million years, fungi have been inhabiting this planet, feeding on whatever they could finding, filling every biological niche they could find. But who could have actually guessed that they could feed on nuclear radiation? Researchers from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine (AEC) had a hunch, and they investigated it to test. They first got the idea after reading that samples brought from Chernobyl were filled with some black fungi growing on it.

“I found that very interesting and began discussing with colleagues whether these fungi might be using the radiation emissions as an energy source,” explained Casadevall.

Casadevall and his co-researchers then set about performing a variety of tests using several different fungi; two types of mushrooms were used, one that had naturally contains melanin, and one that was injected with the substance. They were then exposed to radiation levels 500 times bigger than the normal ones. The result? Both of them grew much faster than they would normally when exposed to radiation.

“Just as the pigment chlorophyll converts sunlight into chemical energy that allows green plants to live and grow, our research suggests that melanin can use a different portion of the electromagnetic spectrum – ionizing radiation – to benefit the fungi containing it,” said co-researcher Ekaterina Dadachova.

They took the research one step further and found some extremely interesting answers, which raise more questions. The melanin in these radiotrophic fungi is chemically identical to the melanin in our own bodies, and this led them to believe that it could be actually providing energy for skin cells. Perhaps even more interesting, this find has a special importance for space missions.

“Since ionizing radiation is prevalent in outer space, astronauts might be able to rely on fungi as an inexhaustible food source on long missions or for colonizing other planets,” noted Dadachova.

Monitoring radioactivity levels near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Photograph: Christian Slund/Reuters

Japan raises nuclear crisis level to that of Chernobyl

Japan’s nuclear crisis level has been regulated from level 5 to 7  by the International Atomic Energy Agency, at the top of the nuclear hazard scale and right on par with the 1986 Chernobyl incident, according to the level of radiation released in the accident. The new ranking signifies a “major accident” with “wider consequences” than the previous level, according to the Vienna-based IAEA.

“We have upgraded the severity level to 7 as the impact of radiation leaks has been widespread from the air, vegetables, tap water and the ocean,” said Minoru Oogoda of Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.

The decision was made after assessments of data on leaks of radioactive iodine-131 and cesium-137 showed critical levels of radiation.

“We have refrained from making announcements until we have reliable data,” NISA spokesman Hidehiko Nishiyama said.

“The announcement is being made now because it became possible to look at and check the accumulated data assessed in two different ways,” he said, referring to measurements from NISA and the Nuclear Security Council.

As opposed to the Chernobyl crisis, however, the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant hasn’t experienced any reactor core explosions, despite hydrogen explosions occurred during the first waves of tsunami which hit Japan after the deadly 9.0 earthquake. Actually, the amount of radiation leaking from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant is around only 10 percent of the Chernobyl accident.

The magnitude-9.0 earthquake that caused the tsunami immediately stopped Fukushima’s three reactors, but overheated cores and a lack of cooling functions led to further damage. Engineers have been able to drop water into the damaged reactors to cool them down, but leaks have resulted in the pooling of tons of contaminated, radioactive water that has prevented workers from conducting further repairs – and if it wasn’t enough, aftershocks on Monday briefly cut power to backup pumps, halting the injection of cooling water for about 50 minutes before power was restored.

It could take weeks or months to stabilize the reactors. And containing and cleaning up the radioactive material could take at least 10 years, at a cost of more than $10 billion.