New technology “cocoons” Chernobyl waste while Ukraine announces plant’s imminent closure

Two new announcements have effectively nailed the lid on Chernobyl’s coffin: Ukraine’s president announced the plant’s December closure, and a new technology will soon immobilise its leftover radioactive waste.

President Leonid Kuchma of Ukraine announced on 15 September that the last remaining reactor at the plant is to be permanently closed down on 15 December.

“It’s a political decision…and it will be a historic event, I invite the world press to come and witness it,” Kuchma said at the EU-Ukraine summit in Paris.

Total compensation of 430 million euros (£262 million) from the EU and others was announced at the summit to help Ukraine finance an alternative to the plant, which still supplies six percent of the energy required by the 52 million-strong nation. Controversially, Ukraine is expected to build two new nuclear power plants with the support of the European Union and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

A joint statement from the EU and French and Ukrainian governments said that the latter was taking steps to reform its energy sector “notably by privatising distribution companies, improving cash collection, ensuring independent nuclear regulatory authority and improving energy efficiency”. The aid pledged is condition on the implementation of these reforms.

The summit came two days after scientists announced that a newly developed silicon polymer coating known as EKOR will be used to “cocoon” nuclear waste and prevent radioactive contaminants from dusting or seeping in to the environment from October. An initial application of EKOR at Chernobyl’s failed reactor four in August demonstrated that EKOR is radiation resistant and does not degrade even after long-term exposure to radiation, and can withstand extreme physical, chemical and biological assaults on its structural integrity.

“This is an important milestone for EKOR,” said Jeff Stephen, Chief Operating Officer for EUROTECH, a US-based technology holding and marketing company, who acquired the rights to produce and market the chemical from its creators at the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow. “It allows us to demonstrate at Chernobyl how EKOR can be applied by advanced robotic equipment in a physically challenging radioactive environment. The equipment and techniques refined here will be directly applicable to other radioactive and toxic sites worldwide where the safe direct application of EKOR by humans is impossible.”

In the initial application In March, specially developed robots applied the EKOR coating to cover the largest fuel containing mass under Chernobyl’s Reactor four, as radiation levels are too high for humans to apply the polymer. This was the first time that a substance applied to contain radiation from the fuel masses at Chernobyl has not disintegrated after three or four months, and persuaded the Ukrainian government to approve EKOR’s use.

October’s application, also by robots, will be more extensive and will develop and fine-tune the methods and equipment for applying EKOR coatings to nuclear waste. Any successful result will point to easier management of the world’s most dangerous nuclear waste, and its creators already say that the substance offers “the most advanced and effective means available of safely containing radioactive waste and preventing its spread”.

EUROTECH is currently working with NuSil Technology in Santa Barbara, California to test and prepare EKOR for commercial production in North America.

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