CHERNOBYL -- With clockwork cadence, a 27-ton hydraulic hammer suspended from a huge crane pounds rhythmically on a large pillar, pushing it 24 meters deep into the earth. Right next to it stands Chernobyl's infamous reactor Number Four, which is draped in a shapeless steel sarcophagus. The protective cover is more for show than anything else, considering the isotopes that keep leaking out of it.
A quarter-century after the April 26, 1986 nuclear disaster, this obsessive drilling sound punctuates the building site of a huge, state-of-the-art radioactive shield. More than a shield really, the $2 billion Novarka project, as it is known, is a coffin. Within about four years, its aim is to once and for all lock up the radioactive monster and put an end to this disastrous legacy of the Soviet Union.
The Novarka project is a joint venture involving French companies Bouygues and Vinci, which are currently working on structure's foundation. Philippe Regnault is the head of the project's civil engineering department. One of his favorite pastimes is to draw red crosses on a map where supporting pillars have already been driven into the earth. "In December, I'll be done with my pillars," he says.
This is not Regnault's first foreign assignment. Before arriving in the Ukraine, he helped build a launch pad for the European spaceport in French Guyana, a thermoelectric power station in Pakistan and a gas tank in Egypt. Here he doesn't have to deal with the jungle or Asian monsoons. But he does face an insidious, invisible enemy whose presence can only be detected through the high pitched vibration of the Geiger counter. "That's why this building site looks like absolutely none other," Regnault insists.
That's also why the Novarka project's 600 workers must deal with a long list of very particular workplace constraints. To reach the building site from Kiev, the capital, the visitor has to cross two checkpoints located on the edge of the contaminated zone. Once he is on the site, he undresses, leaves his clothes in a locker, walks in his underwear through a series of changing rooms, puts on a long-sleeved uniform despite the scorching heat, hangs two different Geiger counters around his neck, shows his passports to two zealous Ukrainian militiamen and climbs onto a roof along a 50-centimeter-wide de-contaminated strip. Only then can he can look down at the building site, which stretches over eight hectares.
The 300 worker ants dressed in white overalls that bustle about 30 meters below are already part of another world: the world of the atom, where the workers can stay no more than five hours a day for one month before leaving the premises for 15 days of rest.
Experts in radiology determined the location of the site based on radioactivity measurements taken all around Chernobyl. They even took readings high up in the air thanks to a pilot balloon.
To limit the volume of radiation, the shield, which is supported by a 23,000-ton metal framework, will be assembled exactly 300 meters west of the damaged reactor. Another 100 meters further to the west, radiation levels would have been lower still, but the building site would have bumped into the limit of the safety zone, which is protected by two rows of barbed wire and watched by the Ukrainian secret services. To the east they faced other constraints: the whole area is occupied by reactor number three, which Ukrainian authorities still hope to make work again.
The two parts of the shield will be assembled on rails, which the crew, with the help of powerful hydraulic jacks, will later use to move the structure toward and finally over the reactor, to isolate it. The delicate task of moving the shield 300 meters is expected to take four days. Once in place, the shield will be monitored from afar to avoid any human activity close to it. It will be equipped with a ventilation system and sensors to evaluate corrosion levels.
Life in the danger zone
Around the 25-year-old disaster site, prefabricated buildings have been put in place, equipped with air conditioning and officially isolated from the radiation. Daily life is not easy, although according to Alexandre, one of the Ukrainian experts employed by Vinci, this job is a true adventure. "I certainly hope I will see it through to the end," he says. Not all of the workers, however, share Alexandre's enthusiasm.
Every morning, along with their bosses, the workers arrive at the Chernobyl train station. Most come from Slavoutitch, a bedroom community that Soviet authorities built after the disaster in a location protected from the prevailing winds. Safety scans, used to detect any abnormal radioactivity levels, are placed right at the entry of the station platforms. Latecomers who may have drunk a bit too much the night before - there are usually a couple - arrive on the 11:15 a.m. shuttle, which people here call here the merrymaker's train.
The long commute is not the only factor Philippe Regnault has to take into account in recruiting his employees. "Sometimes very experienced and skilled people fail the medical examination and are thus denied access to the site. Younger people, on the other hand, tend to be in good health, but very often they've never held a hammer in their life and we have to train them," he says. Only the promise of a decent salary - a minimum of 250 euros per month with bonuses that can reach 24% - attracts new recruits.
On the train that transports them back to a safer place each night, the Novarka workers travel with many of the 3,000 people still employed by the Chernobyl nuclear plant. Most do maintenance work. "The radioactivity is certainly scary, but here my salary (450 euros per month) is three times what I'd make in my home town. It's enough to support my family," says a man named Vladimir, who has been working at the plant for 17 years.
Unlike the people promoting the Novarka project, Vladimir thinks the shield will result in a slow social death for Chernobyl. "The plant might close sooner than expected, and there will be less work for us." Vladimir cares little about the technical wizardry of the western engineers. He is still attached to his little radioactive cocoon.