Atomic Architecture

Chernobyl's aging sarcophagus will be torn down, replaced soon

A massive steel and concrete half-dome that houses the leftover radioactive material at Chernoybl is not stable and Ukraine is nearly finished making a replacement structure. (Gytizzz/Via Creative Commons)

The historic sarcophagus at Chernobyl is slated to be partially dismantled to make way for a safer structure very soon. The Ukranian company that manages the formerly-radioactive site—home of the world’s most famous nuclear disaster—is taking it down preemptively before the 30-year-old structure falls. 

According to Popular Mechanics, the concrete-and-steel, half-domed architecture, also known as the Shelter, was built in just 206 days after the 1986 explosion in Soviet-era Ukraine. As the Russian-occupied state was trying to sort through the mess, the government hired “liquidators,” or clean up agents, to construct the sarcophagus atop the deadly site. Though many died because of the work, it successfully kept radioactive chemicals such as corium, uranium, and plutonium from exposing the surrounding city—and the world—all these years. 

Despite its remarkably quick construction and decades of decent performance, the sarcophagus was actually built quite poorly, without any welded or bolted joints due to the inexperience of the workers. It became clear that after just over a decade, the sarcophagus would need to be replaced. Popular Mechanics noted how in a 2017 interview with BBC, an expert on nuclear safety recounted that the Soviets lowered the beams for the building and built the roof structure using helicopters. Nothing was made to be very sturdy. 

The SSE Chernobyl NPP, which oversees the site today, said it will start taking the insecure architecture apart after the New Shelter Containment (NCS), a building plan that was pieced together two decades ago, is up and running. The build-out of the NCS is currently in progress by a French consortium of construction groups called Novarka and, according to World Nuclear News, it’s the “largest moveable land-based structure ever built.” BBC identified the “vast new tomb for dangerous waste” as larger than Wembly Stadium and taller than the Statue of Liberty.

Close up view of Chernobyl steel and concrete sarcophagus

Close-up view of the sarcophagus (Ian Bancroft/Flickr)

The NCS is expected to make the site safe for up to 100 years and will help it withstand dangerously high temperatures, a class-three tornado, and a 6.0 earthquake—all things that the sarcophagus is prone to crumbling because of now. Officials are also testing the equipment and technological systems used on the NCS ahead of its soon-to-be full operation. 

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