More than 30 years later, the site of the world’s most catastrophic nuclear disaster is about to get a major facelift. In a reveal on Friday, two major energy companies showed off thousands of new solar panels built in Chernobyl’s radioactive exclusion zone in a bid to transition Ukraine’s energy grid to more renewable sources.
Some 3,800 solar panels now live in the largely uninhabitable 1.6-hectare (4-acre) contaminated area that will produce enough energy to supply 2,000 apartments. At the cost of 1 million euros ($1.2 million), German clean-energy company Enerparc AG and Ukrainian engineering firm Rodina Energy Group Ltd say they plan to invest another 99 million euros to eventually produce around 100 megawatts.
The plan was first announced in 2016 with construction beginning earlier this year. It comes as Ukraine is working to diversify its electrical generation after having stopped buying natural gas from Russia. The solar plant is located a short walk across from the former power station responsible for the 1986 meltdown, which is entombed in a giant metal and concrete “sarcophagus” that limits the release of lingering radiation into the environment and atmosphere.
In the land surrounding the meltdown site, for about 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles), other activities such as farming or forestry are too dangerous to conduct because it is so contaminated with radiation. Not only is the site already conveniently connected to the power grid, but Ukraine will also be paying 15 euro cents per kilowatt-hour for the next 12 years, almost 50 percent more than the European average.
On April 26, 1986, Reactor Number Four infamously exploded, killing 30 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant due to a flawed reactor design and inadequately-trained workers. The steam and fire explosion released 5 percent of the radioactive reactor core into the atmosphere with some estimates suggested up to 75 percent of Europe was affected by the fallout, with neighboring Belarus and Russia getting hit the hardest.
The energy released was 10 times that of the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima, prompting Soviet authorities to evacuate hundreds of thousands of people.
Over time, the other reactors were shut down with the last closing in 2000. Over 5,000 square kilometers (2,000 square miles) are still abandoned and humans won’t be able to resettle in the area for another 24,000 years when the radioactive contamination is believed to have dropped to a level no longer dangerous.