Discovering Chernobyl as a Solar Powerhouse

Can the site of the famous nuclear reactor disaster be transformed into a solar plant?

Chernobyl is unarguably a town that reminds us all of the world’s famous nuclear disaster. Chernobyl, Ukraine was poisoned with radiation after the explosion of nuclear power plant which had a flawed reactor design and inadequately trained personnel. The public health threat from the radiation poisoning released in 1986 has been reduced and resettlement of areas has begun more recently—in 2011 Chernobyl was even declared a tourist attraction.

Now, 30 years later the 1,600 square mile site will allure people for another reason; it is being turned into a pinnacle of solar power. Ukraine’s ecology minister said the government is currently negotiating with two US investment firms and four Canadian energy companies to determine Chernobyl’s solar options. Building solar plants in Chernobyl could prove profitable: land is cheap, power lines are still useable, and people have already been train to work at power plants.

Ukraine has reaffirmed its commitment to the environment and clean energy, moving along the agenda for a 1,000 megawatts solar plant to be built. It also plans to generate 400 megawatts of other renewable energy. The project would cost between $1-$1.5 billion dollars in a 6 month construction cycle, a short time frame for the scale of this project. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) has expressed interest in the project but warns that there are questions of its “bankability and environmental standards” . The EBRD has already stated its willingness to lend money to build a steel “sarcophagus” over the nuclear reactor to contain it, a project that will cost $500 million.

This new opportunity for development—sustainable development— on idle land would also help Ukraine reduce dependence on Russia for power and push the Ukrainian agenda for European Union membership. Though the immediate threat of danger in the area has diminished, the conditions and consequences for solar plant installers and workers are a gray area. An increased likelihood of thyroid cancer is the most prominent concern these 30 years on from the disaster, otherwise there is no evidence of a major public health impact.

Even if funding is hazy at the moment, the sunshine in Chernobyl is not. Solar resources (sunlight) in Ukraine rival that of Germany—which has almost 39 gigawatts of solar panels installed. Ukraine has a gigantic energy future and this solar plant is the first step.