A hundred yards from the rusting ruins at the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster, a gossamer array of almost 4,000 photovoltaic panels sits atop a thick concrete slab capping a grave of radioactive waste.
When it comes to clean energy, it’s hard to think of a less likely place than Ukraine’s infamous Chernobyl nuclear plant. But final preparations are being made to generate electricity again, this time using safer power from the sun.
It’s part of the country’s plan to reduce dependency on increasingly unreliable Russian gas deliveries and disrupted coal supplies. Dominated by the 300 foot (91 meter) high grey containment structure that entombs the destroyed reactor, Chernobyl’s exclusion zone is almost the size of Luxembourg and the authorities say it’s vital to Ukraine’s push to double its solar energy output.
Solar Chernobyl SPP is at the vanguard of the latest experiment to give a place synonymous with catastrophe a new life after previous efforts failed. The company is a partnership between Ukrainian entrepreneur Yevgen Variagin’s Rodina Energy Group and Hamburg-based Enerparc AG.
“Our idea was to utilize the waste land that’s unsuitable for anything else and somehow develop the investment project and make business in Chernobyl,” Variagin, who was a 10-year-old schoolboy in Kyiv when the disaster struck in April 1986, said as he showed off the solar panels installed over the past month.
The Chernobyl power plant was once the cornerstone of the Soviet Union’s nuclear strategy in Ukraine.
Then the fourth reactor exploded, blanketing the area with radiation that killed 49 people outright and left thousands more with lingering, often fatal health problems. The zone is dotted with abandoned villages and former dairy farms slowly being swallowed up by the dense forest.
“The reality is some of the land will be abandoned for generations, even a million years,” said Yevgen Gucharenko, an agency employee who accompanies tour groups and other visitors. He was 13 when the reactor exploded. “But there are some clean areas, where it’s safe enough for short visits.”
Back at the site, the 1-megawatt project abutting the towering hut-shaped sarcophagus that holds back deadly radiation is the first small step for Solar Chernobyl. It cost 1 million euros to install and the company pays $450 a month for rights to use the 1.6 hectare (4 acre) property at the heart of the 1986 disaster.
By the first quarter of 2019, Variagin said he wants to produce 100 megawatts of power. The philosophy that drove Variagin and his partners is clear, he said.
“What is the sense of converting agricultural fields into solar fields if there are so many territories affected by human activity and damaged and not useful for anything else,” said Variagin, who was evacuated in his grandfather’s car to the countryside after Chernobyl. “For us, this project is all about social responsibility. It’s the right thing to do.”