From the ashes: Near Chernobyl, a war-torn town plans to relaunch nuclear research

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A version of this story appeared in Science, Vol 378, Issue 6624.Download PDF

SLAVUTYCH, UKRAINE—In one of the last acts of camaraderie in a fractured nation, Soviet workers from the Baltics to the Caucasus converged on a pine forest in the late 1980s to build a Ukrainian city from scratch. Slavutych was a new home for Chernobyl nuclear power plant workers and their families after its 1986 explosion turned Pripyat, the town next to the plant, into a radioactive wasteland. In March, the 20,000 residents of Slavutych endured a different kind of terror, as Russian troops massed outside the town.

Heroic races around enemy lines to secure supplies – and a mighty show of solidarity in the city’s central square – averted disaster. Now Slavutych, like the rest of Ukraine, is preparing for a grueling winter of blackouts. But Mayor Yuri Fomichev and Anatolii Nosovskyi, a radiation warrior with decades of Chernobyl experience, are already planning Slavutych’s postwar revival as a science center, which would focus on a formidable challenge: dismantling the remains. radioactive materials from the destroyed reactor of Chernobyl Unit 4.

Lessons learned at Chernobyl – the mother of all decommissioning projects – can be applied globally, in dozens of nuclear power plants due to shut down in the coming years, says Nosovskyi, director of Ukraine’s Institute for nuclear power plant safety issues (ISPNPP) in Kyiv. “Our idea is to bring together specialists from all over Ukraine in Slavutych. This is what the city was always meant to be: a center of research.

Creating a science center “in an environment like no other in the world would make total sense,” says Kai Vetter, a nuclear physicist at the University of California, Berkeley, whose team donated instruments and supplies to the ISPNPP since the beginning of the war. “It’s a fantastic idea,” adds Nick Tomkinson, non-proliferation expert at Global Nuclear Security Partners, a London consultancy that hopes to map radioactive contamination around Chernobyl.

On February 24, Russian troops invaded the border with Belarus and seized the Chernobyl plant. Nosovskyi, who began his career working on the radiation protection of nuclear submarines, feared the invaders would awaken the radioactive nightmare he witnessed when he was sent to Chernobyl in 1987. There he monitored radiation received by tens of thousands of scientists and soldiers as they erected a concrete shelter above the seething remains of Unit 4. Over the years, he has worked hand in hand with Russian scientists – a cooperation that ceased after Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014. “We figured out how to handle the Chernobyl problem on our own,” he says.

In April, after Russian troops withdrew from the area, Nosovskyi ventured to an ISPNPP satellite facility in Chornobyl. Broken instruments and shards of glass lined the floor of his chemistry lab. The looters had fled with a dozen vehicles and the facility’s newest computers. Dozens of other computers had been stripped of their hard drives. “I quit smoking 4 years ago. I took it back after seeing what had happened in the lab,” Nosovskyi said, lighting a cigarette. (While he was talking to Science at an outdoor cafe on October 10, three Russian cruise missiles passed overhead as they headed for targets in western Ukraine [see video below].)

Nosovskyi believes Russia raided the Chernobyl lab to prove that Ukraine was secretly working to develop nuclear weapons, as three Russian newspapers falsely claimed in late February. “Of course they made it up,” he says, pointing out that Ukraine’s nuclear facilities are monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The Russian army also took factory workers and guards hostage. A chilling moment occurred when two officers demanded access to one of Chernobyl’s two spent fuel repositories, which house ferociously radioactive material. The team leader pushed them away, says Valeriy Seyda, Chernobyl’s acting director, and the suspicious couple left without incident.

But occupiers stole plant equipment and tracked radioactive contamination after digging trenches and laying mines in the nearby Red Forest, named for the pines killed by a radiation plume in the 1986 crash Since the retreat of the soldiers, the plant complex has been cleared and parts of the Chernobyl village have been cleared of mines, but the transport of personnel from Slavutych to Chernobyl for the tasks of decommissioning the four closed reactors of the plant and the maintenance of spent fuel repositories remains a headache. Before the war, workers could travel 50 kilometers by train through Belarus. With this closed border, staff endure a 340-kilometer, 6-hour bus ride around Belarus and work 8-day shifts requiring them to sleep in Chornobyl.

Slavutych, meanwhile, was economically devastated. In the months leading up to the invasion, the town had become a base camp for foreign tourists inspired by the HBO miniseries. Chernobyl. The war crushed this cottage industry. In late February, a bridge on the only road to Slavutych blew up and a Russian battalion camped outside the town. As supplies dwindled, the volunteers undertook perilous walks on forest roads – dodging shells and Russian patrols – to reach villages outside the blockade and scavenge staple foods such as milk, potatoes and cheese. plain flour. “It allowed us to survive,” says Fomichev.

At the beginning of March, the supply of natural gas to Slavutych was interrupted, leading to the closure of the town’s communal heating plant. Engineers rigged a boiler to run on firewood, which managed to provide just enough heat to keep buildings from freezing. Then Russian troops sabotaged the main power line to Slavutych. The lights went out, as did the electric stoves. Residents have resorted to cooking over open fires on the streets in freezing temperatures.

In the meantime, Slavutych organized a militia: about 200 volunteers, a handful of whom had military training. Equipped only with Kalashnikov rifles, they engaged Russian tanks and artillery on the outskirts of the city. “We fought a brave fight,” Fomichev says. Five died in skirmishes and poorly armed, the militia on March 25 accepted a Russian request to leave the city. But when a Russian convoy entered the town square, it encountered a crowd of unarmed protesters chanting “Slavutych is Ukrainian, go home!” “The commander didn’t know what to do. Apparently he didn’t have the courage to massacre unarmed civilians,” Fomichev said. Two days later, the battalion withdrew.

The city’s struggles are not over. In recent weeks, Russian shelling has left Slavutych without power for most hours of the day, and city officials are worried about further disruptions to natural gas supplies.

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This is what the city was always meant to be: a center of research.

  • Anatolii Nosovskyi
  • Institute for Nuclear Power Plant Safety Issues

But Fomichev and Nosovskyi are already proselytizing for their vision of Slavutych as a nuclear science hub specializing in radiation medicine, radioecology and the monumental task of decommissioning the Unit 4 reactor, an effort that is expected to last at least 40 years. . Research is needed in areas such as radiation-hardened robotics and the properties of irradiated graphite from the destroyed reactor core. “We really don’t know how to handle this material safely,” says Nosovskyi. “There are huge opportunities for developing and demonstrating advanced technologies,” says Vetter.

Nosovskyi dreams of eventually installing a small modular reactor, built at a factory elsewhere and shipped to Slavutych to generate electricity and use it as a training facility. He plans to launch a training program on the dismantling of reactors with the help of the Igor Sikorsky Polytechnic Institute in kyiv, which already has a branch in the city. With the rail link interrupted for the foreseeable future, Fomichev is studying a ferry service on the Dnieper that would speed up the journey between Slavutych and Chernobyl.

Achieving the vision would require government or international funding, a possibility only after the end of the war, Nosovskyi acknowledges. But the war strengthened his resolve. He mentions the grandson his daughter gave birth to in kyiv in March as she retreated to an underground shelter. “The little boy does not yet know how brave he was. How brave her mother was. But she named him Lev,” the Ukrainian word for lion. “So he will know and remember one day.”

Reporting for this feature was supported by the Richard Lounsbery Foundation.

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