Photo taken on April 19, 2016 shows a gas mask in a deserted village near Chernobyl, Ukraine. (Xinhua/Dai Tianfang)
KIEV, April 26 (Xinhua) -- Thirty years have passed since the Chernobyl power plant disaster, one of the world's worst nuclear accidents, which has caused widespread environmental pollution and left the areas around the plant uninhabitable for centuries or even millennia to come.
The anniversary of the catastrophe is another reminder that nuclear energy could become a major threat to the world if it is not handled with care and caution. Yet, many experts argue that currently, nuclear power is much safer than it was three decades ago and its role in Ukraine's energy mix is irreplaceable.
IMMITIGABLE TRAGEDY FOR HUMANITY
The morning of April 26, 1986, was a moment of immitigable tragedy for humanity, when the No. 4 nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl power plant exploded, sending a radioactive cloud into the air which contaminated an area of over 60,000 square kilometers in Ukraine, Belarus,Russiaand some other European countries.
Three decades later, radiation levels are still high in the air, water and soil surrounding the plant. The impact of the catastrophe on the environment was so severe that some ecologists expected the area would not be fit for human habitation for years to come.
"Radioactive contamination from the Chernobyl accident would remain for thousands of years. It will gradually decline, but the area would be unusable for economic activity or human habitation," Oleksiy Pasyuk, an expert on energy policy at the National Ecological Center of Ukraine, told Xinhua.
While officially the exclusion zone is uninhabitable, about 4,000 people are still working at the Chernobyl power plant. In addition, between 300 and 400 people, mostly elders, have illegally settled inside the contaminated area.
Life also continues on the borders of the 30-kilometer-radius exclusion zone and people living in those areas are exposed to high radiation levels.
"Some people use contaminated wood for heating. After wood transforms into ash, which has a huge concentration of radioactive substances, people apply that ash to fertilize their gardens. Then, they consume foods that are grown on it and find themselves at risk of the influence of radiation," Pasyuk said.
He pointed out that about 800,000 people in Ukraine have been already affected by the Chernobyl disaster and this number continues to rise as toxic food, scrap metal and forest products from the contaminated area are illegally sold in other Ukrainian regions.
"Radiation is invisible and it complicates the situation. The danger lies primarily in the fact that people don't see the radiation, but radioactive materials penetrate the human body and irradiate cells that could provoke cancer," the environmentalist said.
He believed that the development of the nuclear industry in Ukraine could be very dangerous if the issue is not properly treated. The conflict in the country's eastern regions and the fact that four out of Ukraine's 15 nuclear power units are working under an extended lifetime increase the risks of a new nuclear tragedy, Pasyuk said.
NUCLEAR SAFETY IMPROVEMENTS UNDERWAY
Local energy experts believe that Ukraine's nuclear power industry has become much safer since the Chernobyl disaster. The country has upgraded its nuclear power plants, bringing them in line with international safety standards.
"After Ukraine gained its independence, each year it carries out a modernization of its existing nuclear power units," Olga Kosharna, an expert at the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine, told Xinhua.
In 2011, shortly afterJapan's Fukushima disaster, Ukraine joined the international program on the in-depth safety assessment of nuclear power plants in Europe and now, all of its reactors, even those with an extended lifetime, are operating under European safety standards, she said.
The post-accident cleanup work in the Chernobyl area is also well underway.
To tackle the continuing aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster and avoid further leakage of radiation, a protective cover has been placed over the collapsed nuclear power reactor. The construction of the sarcophagus is set to be completed by the end of 2017.
"Currently, the construction of a safe confinement above the shelter is running on schedule. It is planned that the arch above the former shelter would be completed by the end of 2016. It would take a year to put it into operation," Kosharna said.
However, challenges still remain when it comes to making the Chernobyl site completely safe. One of the main problems is a lack of funding.
In 2011, international donors pledged a total of some 550 million euros (about 780 million U.S. dollars) to the Chernobyl Shelter Fund, but not enough to transform the nuclear power plant into an environmentally safe facility.
"To reduce the risks, it is necessary to disassemble the structure and examine everything inside it, in particular, the molten fuel-containing corium of high activity with long-lived isotopes. Then, this substance should be packed and buried in accordance with the rules and regulations of nuclear radiation safety procedures," Kosharna said.
Such actions would require additional funds, which Ukraine is unable to raise from internal sources due to the financial crisis, Kosharna added.
Photo taken on April 19, 2016 shows a tablet praying for the Fukushima neclear power plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine. Chernobyl. (Xinhua/Dai Tianfang)
NO ALTERNATIVE TO NUCLEAR POWER
Although many challenges remain on the path to ensure the high sustainability and total safety of nuclear power, abandoning it is an unrealistic task for Ukraine, which relies on nuclear energy for over half of its electricity generation.
"Today, Ukraine cannot abandon nuclear power because it is a cornerstone of its energy sector. Replacement of nuclear power with other energy sources would take years and dozens if not hundreds of billions of dollars in investment," Volodymyr Omelchenko, director of energy programs at the Razumkov Center, told Xinhua.
Apart from being cost-effective, nuclear power has another major advantage: It does not produce greenhouse gases, which trigger climate change, so it is environmentally friendly.
Thus, if properly handled, nuclear power could be the cleanest, safest and most affordable energy source in the world to date.
Speaking about a possible replacement of nuclear energy with renewable energy, which is being widely discussed by local environmentalists, Omelchenko said that those energy sources are not alternatives, but complementary options, which have their own consumers.
"Renewable energy and nuclear energy must be developed synchronically. For example, now, the tariff for renewable energy, first of all, for wind energy and solar energy is much higher than for nuclear energy," Omelchenko said.
He also suggested that Ukraine learn from the experience of China and theEuropean Union(EU) of gradually introducing green power into the country's energy mix.
"I hope that in the future, Ukraine will follow the example of the EU, where green energy is booming and China, which is a global leader in developing green energy," he said.
"But our country could embark on this path only after the financial and political situation stabilizes and all necessary conditions are created to attract investment in green energy," the expert said.