Solar Power For Chernobyl’s Second Generation Of Electricity

When featuring cool hacks repurposing one thing for something else, we prefer to focus on what we could get our hands on and replicate for ourselves. Not this one, though, as nobody else has the misfortune of being responsible for 2,000 square kilometers (772 square miles) of radioactive contaminated land like the government of Ukraine. Trying to make the best of what they have, they’ve just launched a pilot program working to put up solar power farms inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

This is sure to invite some jokes in the comments section, but the idea has merit. Thirty years of weather has eroded the worst aftermath of the Chernobyl explosion. That area is no longer immediately lethal and people have been making short visits. Spanning from safety inspectors, to scientists, to curious adventurers with questionable judgement making television shows. Supposedly, by following rules on what not to do, it’s possible to keep radiation exposure of a short visit down to the level experienced by frequent fliers. But that’s still too much radiation for long-term stay. That means no homes, office parks, or factories. No agriculture either, as plants and animals grown in the area should not be eaten.

So what’s left? That’s what Ukraine has been struggling with, as it tried to figure out something positive to offset the headaches of monitoring the area.

Well, next to the defunct power plant is the electric distribution infrastructure it used to feed into, and photovoltaic power generation requires little human oversight. Some maintenance will be required, but hopefully someone has worked out how to keep maintenance workers’ cumulative exposure to a minimum. And if this idea pans out, clean renewable energy would start flowing from the site of one of the worst ecological disasters of our era. That makes it a worthwhile hack on a grand scale.

[via Gizmodo]

40 thoughts on “Solar Power For Chernobyl’s Second Generation Of Electricity

  1. “This is sure to invite some jokes in the comments section, but the idea has merit. ”

    The DMZ between the Korea’s.

    ” No agriculture either, as plants and animals grown in the area should not be eaten.”

    Might be a good way to pulling the radioactivity out of the soil though. Think long term.

      1. Like what? It would still contain the Caesium and Strontium (among a pile of other radioactive isotopes), what would you want to do with it while not re-releasing said isotopes elsewhere? It can’t be a anything that comes into direct contact with people…

        Only thing that comes to mind would be structural lumber, there the increased activity could be tolerated for some applications, but they would have to take great care so nobody decides to burn it.

          1. That just doesn’t sound economic. Raise plants, wait 5-10 years, harvest, process, purify, ship. All from soil that’s got a few ppm of valuable ore.
            Far cheaper to mine it or fire up a particle accelerator. Most medical tracers only have a useful life of a few hours or days. Not conducive to shipping from the black sea to a major metro area.

        1. Milling the lumber would be a Superfund site waiting to happen. The last thing you’d want is radioactive dust getting blown around. Most of the hazards are alpha particles so as long as you don’t eat or breathe the isotopes you’re fine. Millers would have to wear respirators as would the construction crews using the lumber unless it’s all done in house for prefab buildings. Which would drum up cries of “war on the poor”, somewhat deservedly.

    1. Given enough time, the radioactive crap will move deeper and deeper into the ground, making the surface less problematic…
      It’s not like there was a booming metropolis there, just leave it be and call it a wildlife reserve. Before Stalin ordered draining, these lands were marshes, a very diverse biotope.

    2. Lots of research exists on that front. Many reeds and leafy plants pull heavy metals out of the soil. The trouble comes in storing the now hazardous waste or harvesting them before they rot and return the contamination to the soil. Lots of microbes also “eat” heavy metals which can be useful to keep them in insoluble oxidation states thereby stopping the spread of contaminated ground water. There’s information on that, with a library of articles funded by the US DOE in their work around manhattan project facilities.

      But as with so many things funding is a problem. It’s cheaper to fence off the exclusion zone and wait a few thousand years.

        1. They did.
          Those were not volunteers, who had to clean up after that disaster.
          Most worked without any protective gear or even basic instructions. Most of them are gone by now, or heavily sick.
          World is really underestimating the real life in former USSR.

  2. People have been making long visits to Chernobyl since very soon after the disaster. The three reactors that didn’t explode continued operating for years; the last one shut down in 2000.

      1. The solar power scam in germany is 100% about the subsidies. The average output of solar panels in Germany is between 7% – 11% of the nominal capacity.

        The point of the subsidies was originally to kickstart German solar PV manufacturing industry, but that job immediately went to China, and instead they got a huge industry of wasteful middle-men who buy solar panels from China and sell it to German households to collect the subsidies in between. Soon the subsidies will vanish, and so will solar power from Germany. (Well, not immediately, the old 20-year terms are still valid)

        The same thing happened with wind power as well, and as soon as the wind power subsidies were cut the investments in the technology fell by 90%. Only a handful of megascale projects in the North Sea were left on the table, because off-shore turbines produce more electricity per unit and their output fluctuates less.

  3. They used to dig ore up, refine it, make these stupid things. They can’t just dig it up and refine it, again? Meanwhile, our own super toxic waste sits in salt mines with predicted collapse in… 10,000 years is it? To slowly pollute and kill some untold generations. Our US fertilizer is sometimes recipient of such ash. Freighted across country under sever hazardous guidelines, dumped into a silo and carefully added to fertilizer at under 1/2% amounts, is suddenly SAFE! Whew. That was close. OLD RULE: “The solution to polution is dilution.” Or the new way, “Well, just UP the safe limit, and we’re golden.”

    1. You’re talking a difference of (tens or hundreds of) kilos per tonne vs grams per tonne with just as many dust control issues; coupled with higher refining costs given the daughter products. It’s not worth the costs to a business.

  4. My dad did a trip to Chernobyl. He picked up one years worth of background radiation in a matter of hours. Some of the problems they face includes rodents knawing on radioactive stuff, only to be eaten by birds of prey. That moves the radio active materials out of the zone. Another issue is wildfires. The smoke carries the radioactive materials back into the air. Solar is an interesting alternative, although fukushima may be a better location.

    1. ” He picked up one years worth of background radiation in a matter of hours. ”

      No, he didn’t. His accumulated dose was lower than his dose from flying there and back.

      Very few places in the area have a high enough background radiation level to be considered dangerous.

      Families live (still) within miles of the reactor complex. They are monitored continuously, and only one person (whom died recently) had shown any radiation related illness.

      To all the people whom claim Chernobyl a massive tragedy and loss of life- only 12 confirmed deaths have occurred. 11 of those occurred in the first week of the event.

      And Fukushima has an even better record- 0 dead.

      1. … with “confirmed” of course being the key. Hundreds of dead workers would have been another PR desaster for the Soviet Union, so those numbers should always be taken with a pinch of salt.

        Radiation nowadays is completely manageable, though, you’re totally right there.

      2. Yes he did, you get a accumulated radiation tag upon entry. Granted, it was about 20 years ago, and as part of a documentary crew they may have ventured to places that may not normally be acceptable. Pripryat, the evacuated town is a really freely. The people were told it’s just a drill, and that they will be back in a few hours. It was as if everyone was beamed up by some spacecraft. Dishes still on the tables, some in the sink. Messages written in lipstick on bathroom mirrors telling children that mommy will be back in a few hours. Strange place.

      3. Additionally Brian don’t discount the effects of altitude increased radiation. Anyone that has done some aerospace work will tell you SEUs are much higher at altitude. Data from pacemakers suggest an increase of 300 fold during a flight. SEUs, attributed to cosmic radiation increased around 10 fold at 3km, and 1000 fold at 10km.In humans we see increased cancer rates in air crews. Female crews experience a 50% increasing in breast cancer and 2x increase in melanoma.

        Low level ionizing radiation tends to have a linear exposure to cancer risk relationship. Every photon has the required energy to give you cancer, it just depends on where it strikes. A strike on the wrong part of your DNA and its cancer. It’s purely a statistical game, double the exposure, double the risk.

        1. >”.In humans we see increased cancer rates in air crews. Female crews experience a 50% increasing in breast cancer and 2x increase in melanoma. ”

          But much of that effect can be attributed to stressful work conditions (continuous jet lag etc.).


          >”Pilots flying for 56.6 minutes at 30 000 feet receive the same amount of UV-A carcinogenic effective radiation as that from a 20-minute tanning bed session. These levels could be significantly higher when flying over thick cloud layers and snow fields, which could reflect up to 85% of UV radiation. Airplane windshields do not completely block UV-A radiation and therefore are not enough to protect pilots. UV-A transmission inside airplanes can play a role in pilots’ increased risk of melanoma.”

          Much of the cancers that were previously attributed to cosmic radiation, or background radiation, are actually not caused by radiation but by chemicals exposure, hormonal effects, stress, and UV light. For example, it is now known that stressful conditions double a woman’s risk of breast cancer.

      4. When I visited 10 years ago I recall a local fishing at the port who happened to be smoking and on their phone.
        The guide asked them what they were doing and they said something like getting free food.
        He said he warned them and they told him to f’off or words to that effect.

        We bought some beers from the local shop and had a photo of us having a beer in a “radioactive wasteland”, as you do.
        We didn’t get tags with didn’t get a portable geiger. We just wandered around in and out of buildings and didn’t touch anything.
        Lamenting about the new waste that had been shipped into site – Remembering a manual for a zip drive and LCD monitor.

        IMHO best thing for the area would be a gigantic nuclear waste storage facility. And maybe other waste too.
        The place is huge, it’s already stuffed, arguably the most monitored place on earth for radioactivity so why not?
        Geography and poltical problems mostly I’d imagine.
        The waste storage facility which was built was dogged by problems an now finally I read is being tested for decomissioning the blown reactor fuel and others in the area. But why not all of Europe ??
        Stuff has to go somewhere.

  5. Myco remediation? Also will the radiation degrade the plastics in the installation like wiring, rubber seals in the connectors, components in inverters or the silicon wafers? Remember from underneath these panels just have a plastic membrane which I think may be mylar from memory.

  6. Solar power has to be the most well thought out idea for Ukraine since Hitler tried invading in winter.

    Seriously, there’s this beautiful ecological reserve full of wildlife, great biodiversity with minimal impacts from humans. Leave it alone. Don’t pave over all that wilderness and beauty with solar cells just to get a tiny bit of unreliable energy.

    Stop throwing biodiversity, wilderness and climate change under the bus just because it “feels right” for the irrational cult of antinuclearism.

  7. Paving over the entirety of the 2500 hectares with solar cells would generate about 2.7 TWh per year – less than half of the energy generated just by the one Chernobyl Unit 3 reactor in 2000.

    1. Dear Luke,
      I don’t really agree with this statement.
      please check your calculations again…

      You say 2500 hectares, that is 25000000 m²
      Assuming usage of 250Watt peak panels, the average size for one panel is: 1,6m * 0,9m = 1,44m²
      That means that on 2500 hectares one could install 17361111 panels.
      That means the peak power would be 4340277777 Watt =>4 340 277 kWp

      If we use the global yearly irradiation for Chernobyl, using PVGIS ( and use the 4340277kWp PV system as input. The yearly energy generation with Combined PV system losses of 24.2% in theory would be 4380000000kWh.
      That rounds to 4380 TWh, which is a more than a thousand difference of your number.
      And there is still a lot room for error because this calculation is just made on a beer card.

      And another thing, what do you mean with “unreliable energy”? What is unreliable about it? it’s intermittency? That can be forecasted and covered by the many grid technologies and solutions out there;

      Have a good day,

      1. >what do you mean with “unreliable energy”?

        4.3 GW of power going on/off with the clouds and the sun isn’t something you can just “deal with” even if you could forecast it. The ramping power to deal with it costs enormously and consumes an assload of fossil fuels.

        1. But it is already being “dealt with”.
          It’s the transmission system network operator (at least here in EU) that is responsible for maintaining grid stability. Renewable energy has “priority” over the network, so it is the fossil fuel and nuclear power plants that need to scale up and down, synchronizing production with generation, trading markets and finally the buzzword of the year ; “storage” that all help maintain that stability.
          As for answering “deal with”…An example: the German electricity network has very stringent power quality requirements and at the same time Germany also has a lot of renewable energy. From an 80% peak to a 30% average renewable energy generation, whilst still maintaining a very stable and reliably grid (SAIDI, So yes, it is being dealt with.

          With regards to your remark about costing enormously much resources, being money or fossil fuels (which I doubt), my counter would be; you rather have a polluted and inundated planet?

          There are so many pro’s and con’s to renewable energy in general, and we can keep on discussing and exchanging thoughts, but one thing is sure, renewable energy is here to stay and it’s up to us engineers and thinkers to make it work. The electricity world currently is so interesting and there are so many new ideas, technology’s and polices floating around, a big contrast from the old central ” we will feed you our electricity” dogma.

          Have a good day,

          1. And another thing, the last thing. I promise

            You are absolutely right about wilderness and great biodiversity.
            No green should make way for solar panels.
            No trees or bogs or whatever pristine nature that is left should be cut of removed.

            There is ample space in urban and industrial areas.

          2. There’s another mistake in Luke’s calculation: for some reason he replaces 2000 km^2 with 2500 hectares, but 2000 km^2 = 2* 10^9 m^2 = 2 billion square meters

  8. Take a deserted area in a very corrupt nation near the border of another shady country, and put it full of pricy, high in demand solar panels. What could go wrong?
    I predict huge EU funds for this super duper important climate project, only to find the panels stolen.

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