The Chornobyl solar plant, built on the epicenter of the world’s worst nuclear accident, was meant to prove there is always hope, even in the face of disaster. Such symbolism is more relevant than ever, as Ukraine needs strength during the darkest times of the country’s modern history.
The 1 MW solar plant was launched in October 2018, just across from the giant sarcophagus sheltering the notorious nuclear reactor, which almost three decades ago turned large swathes of fertile land into post-apocalyptic desolation.
The importance of the project for the future of the Chornobyl area is hard to overestimate.
“Before us, nobody showed an interest in investing in the Chornobyl exclusion zone,” says Evgeniy Variagin, the chief executive of Kyiv-based Rodina, which built and managed the PV plant, with German developer Enerparc AG.
It is easier to walk along a beaten track than be a pioneer, Variagin says, explaining that when the company started evaluating the idea of installing solar panels in the exclusion zone, it soon became clear no regulations on how this could be done had ever existed.
“Nobody was thinking about it because Chornobyl was a black hole in the middle of Ukraine,” Variagin says. “In order to meet the rules of working in the exclusion zone, we had to urge the authorities to establish them.”
It took Rodina only around 45 days to commission a project featuring 3,800 solar panels. Before that, however, the company spent five long years working with the state managers who are supervising the exclusion zone to lay down a legal foundation for the project, Variagin recalls, describing that timeframe as “absolutely crazy.”
Still, the efforts paid off. Now, everybody wishing to follow Rodina’s lead and start a business in the Chornobyl exclusion zone has clear, well-elaborated regulations and guidelines to follow.
Rodina has an extended portfolio of solar plants built across the post-Soviet space, outside of Russia, over the past decade. “Since 2013, we have designed, constructed, and commissioned more than 1 GW of solar parks across the region,” Variagin says. But Chornobyl is unlike any other project the company has worked on.
“Radiation is not a single phenomenon,” he says. “In fact, there are different radioactive elements which hide in various layers and different parts of the environment. Their threat could vary, and they have different half-life periods.”
One of the key requirements of operating in the Chornobyl exclusion zone is that digging operations are almost entirely prohibited. For this reason, the construction was stabilized by a ballast system and all cables are run on the surface. During the building phase and at every maintenance stage, workers need to carry radiation meters and follow strict heath, safety, and enviromental requirements.
“For sure, fulfilling the requirements cost a fortune but it was never about money,” Variagin says. He explains that the eventual goal was to show that one company could change a tiny part of the world for the better.
“Besides, we managed to show our engineering capabilities, which we can safely say were acknowledged worldwide,” Variagin says, citing several international awards the plant has received.
Various limitations and hazards originally made some parts of the solar community skeptical about the future of the solar plant in the Chornobyl exclusion zone. However, Variagin says the station has operated without a hitch right from the start.
Even so, working in the exclusion zone could be depressing. The Chornobyl plant is seen by many as a monument to humanity’s hubris. For others, it is a warning of what the world could become if humankind does not learn from past mistakes.
“Personally, I’m not fond of traveling to the exclusion zone for fun,” says Variagin. “In the same way, I’m not fond of visiting concentration camps. It’s just hard to accept that such disasters are possible. But we need to embrace the truth that people are reluctant to do anything about such disasters until they have already happened.”
In February 2022, the Chornobyl exclusion zone was temporarily occupied by Russian forces making their push towards Kyiv. Unlike numerous other solar plants unfortunate enough to be located in the frontline regions or occupied territories, the Chornobyl solar plant was spared any destruction.
“The station was mined by the invaders but the flags of Rodina, Enerparc AG, Solar Chernobyl, Germany and Ukraine stayed put during the whole time of occupation,” Variagin says.
It was a truly unique situation. “I can’t be sure but they had probably never seen such a thing [as a solar farm in a nuclear zone] before and decided not to go inside because they were not confident it was safe,” he adds.
“So thank God and the Ukrainian forces, and people. We survived as a symbol and as a project,” Variagin says, adding that the very fact that Russians took control of the Chornobyl nuclear plant was alarming since it posed a direct threat, not just to the nearby solar plant but for millions of people. “It was a foolish act,” he says. “Can you imagine, something that could blow out the entirety of Europe being managed by 19-year-old soldiers with Kalashnikov assault rifles?”
When selecting the location for the solar plant, Rodina chose an area a few hundred meters away from the Chornobyl reactor. The idea was to show that it was still possible to operate in what seems to be the most dangerous place in the region, though Variagin stresses that the entire exclusion zone is contaminated and there is no major difference in radiation levels between various parts of the area.
It is possible its location saved the solar plant. “I think they might have wanted to do something to the plant but they were afraid because it’s located so close to the old nuclear storage facilities,” says Variagin.
After Russia retreated from northern Ukraine at the end of March 2022, the solar site passed some inspections and was swiftly put back into operation.
Before Russian troops crossed the Ukrainian border, triggering Europe’s deadliest conflict in decades and plunging the national economy into chaos, Rodina harbored ambitious expansion plans for its Chornobyl plant. At the end of last year, the company intended to boost generation capacity by 12 MW and install a further two phases, of 20 MW, this year. Currently, all development plans have been put on hold.
“If the war stops today, we begin construction tomorrow,” Variagin says, admitting Rodina is in survival mode, like virtually everybody in Ukraine now.
“A part of our team went to the army,” says Variagin. “Before the war, our staff was 500 people; now there are only 250. Some people moved out of Ukraine.” He says the company keeps paying wages to its employees who went to the frontline and has participated in several other charity initiatives via its Green Chernobyl foundation, helping Ukraine inch towards victory.
Speaking about long-term prospects, Variagin says he is confident that, eventually, Ukraine will recover, rebuild its economy, and expand the renewable energy sector. It is hard to say, though, when this will happen since the end of hostilities is nowhere on the horizon.
“We have no other option than to win this war,” he says. “We have already paid a high price. This is what hurts me more than anything else: we are losing our best people right now, who defend our country. Capacities can be rebuilt, money can be made but when lives are lost, there is nothing you can do about it.”
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