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Cleaning up the two worst nuclear disasters

A tourist takes a picture of Chernobyl Reactor No. 4 (Photo by Masayuki Kozono)

CHERNOBYL Three decades after their lives changed forever, the surviving residents of the area around Chernobyl still cling to the memories of their old homes.

On April 30, the square only a few hundred meters from the destroyed reactor bustled with smiling tourists taking pictures. "Let's get one in front of Reactor No. 4," said one of the visitors. At 0.005 mSv/hour, radiation levels no longer require visitors to wear protective gear.

The State Agency of Ukraine on Exclusion Zone Management reports that about 17,000 people visited the area in 2015, up 30% from 2014. Its head, Vitalii Petruk, said, "We hope that you'll learn about the consequences of human error."

Six times more radioactive material escaped from Reactor No. 4 than from the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co.

Levels of radioactive cesium, the primary atmospheric toxin, in the area surrounding Reactor No. 4 today stand at about the same as they do near the Fukushima plant. But 30 years is just the half-life of the substance, making it an extremely tough environment for decommissioning work.

"My legs kept shaking and wouldn't stop," said Anatoliy Koliadin, 67, an electrical engineer who was working on Reactor No. 4 at the time of the disaster. As the walls collapsed and debris was thrown everywhere, he was busy in the control room working on the recovery. People shouted, "Water! Cool the fuel!" and, "Check the radiation level!"

In the five days following the explosion he was exposed to 10 times the radiation level considered dangerous for whole-body exposure. He receives government compensation for his heart condition and other health issues. "I was an engineer, I didn't run, and I'm proud of that," he says.

Next to Reactor No. 4, an imposing arch-shaped cover is under construction. The concrete sarcophagus built to contain what is left of the roof and walls has aged and is beginning to crack in places. Construction of the replacement cover, 109 meters high, 162 long and 257 wide, is scheduled for completion in 2017. At that point, decommissioning work can begin in earnest.

Asked when the reactor will be fully decommissioned, a PR manager at the nuclear power plant had a direct response: "We don't know." The work requires advanced technology for collecting the melted nuclear fuel, and no specific time frame has been decided.

Michael Zgurovsky, rector of the National Technical University of Ukraine (Photo by Masayuki Kozono)

Michael Zgurovsky, rector of the National Technical University of Ukraine, Kiev Polytechnic Institute, said that the disasters in Chernobyl and Fukushima have much in common.

"In analyzing what happened at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station, we concluded that it was a human-caused disaster like Chernobyl," Zgurovsky said, adding that common lessons can be learned. "Efforts to cultivate a culture of safety and safety measures that consider the probability of human error as a precondition are important. That remains our primary challenge."

Zgurovsky also sees opportunity for collaboration. "When the Chernobyl accident happened, people did too much dangerous work. Robotic technology is essential in preventing the same mistakes. I think decommissioning the No. 4 reactor is technically possible, but will take a long time. We hope for technical ties with Japan."

In Fukushima Prefecture, which now faces many of the same challenges, students are working to develop key technologies for decommissioning reactors. "We can apply the technologies we've learned to help in the decommissioning," said eighteen-year-old Haruka Kato, a senior at the Fukushima College, National Institute of Technology.

In March, Kato and four other institute students visited Kurion in the U.S., a company that has been providing Tepco with water-treatment equipment. They watched the processes for crystallizing toxic waste and filtering toxins.

Last year the school opened a special program for reactor decommissioning specialists. In partnership with the University of Tokyo, the five-year program will provide students with knowledge on radioactivity, decommissioning engineering and other related fields. "There are lots of difficulties in decommissioning work, but there are also opportunities for training young engineers. We'd like to train decommissioning specialists from here in Fukushima," said Associate Professor Shigekazu Suzuki.

In two very different locations on opposite sides of the world, a very similar struggle is underway. When it will finally be over remains unclear.

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