By Caroline Phillips

Written by Fairewinds Chief Engineer Arnie Gundersen

Featured in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:

A July 2016 article in The Guardian said that the country of Ukraine has been soliciting funds for a proposed project to turn extensive swathes of ground adjacent to Chernobyl into a gigantic solar collector full of photovoltaic panels. The story’s author, John Vidal, wrote: “In a presentation sent to major banks and seen by the Guardian 6,000 hectares of ‘idle’ land in Chernobyl’s 1,000 square km exclusion zone, which is considered too dangerous for people to live in or farm, could be turned to solar, biogas and heat and power generation.”

This Ukrainian proposed solar array would cover approximately 23 square miles of the 386 square-mile exclusion zone. Put in perspective, the electric output from this solar facility would yield approximately the same amount of electricity that the now-shuttered Chernobyl reactor #4 produced before it exploded. And it seems that Ukraine is not the only country with such plans; only 20 miles away from Chernobyl, another solar plant is currently under construction in the country of Belarus, in an area that was also extensively contaminated by Chernobyl’s fallout.

Similarly, land near Fukushima, Japan, is seeing solar panels sprout up near that country’s stricken nuclear power plant. It seems that there is a trend underway, in widely scattered parts of the world, that have atomic power disasters in common. But is it really advisable to have solar generating facilities in the exclusion zones created by a nuclear catastrophe? On the face of it, this would seem to be a benign, innovative use of contaminated land. But are there hazards slipping in under the radar, from seemingly innocuous sources—such as radioactive dust? And looking at the situation more broadly, is the endeavor indicative of society being far too casual about the effects of serious radioactive releases from nuclear power plants?

First, some background. There is no doubt that the electric power is needed. Because Ukraine has 15 atomic reactors, generating almost 56 percent of its total electricity—of which seven will reach the end of their licensed operating life by 2020—this proposal is not merely an academic argument. It has real economic, environmental, and health implications for the entire country. Ukraine needs a massive financial investment in new sources of electric generation to keep its lights on. While reconditioning its aging atomic reactors is possible to briefly extend their service time, the cost to recondition such aged nuclear plants is exceptionally high, exceeding several billion US dollars.

Consequently, any proposal to generate electricity and make up for the loss of generating power caused by the disaster at the nuclear power plant should be taken seriously. And the same is true of the situation in Japan.

While traveling in Fukushima Prefecture in February and March of 2016, I noticed numerous, small-scale solar installations throughout areas where habitation is either still forbidden or relocation has only recently been allowed. While not producing anywhere near the power of the proposed Ukrainian solar farm, these collectors …read more