Radioactive waste at Chernobyl plant threatens water supply

March 24, 1994|By Cox News Service

CHERNOBYL, Ukraine -- Nearly eight years after the Chernobyl meltdown, Ukrainian scientists have found that strontium-90 is leaching into the ground water and may reach Ukraine's most important water reservoir within a few years.

The radioactive strontium is carried into the earth by rain and snow that penetrates the concrete-and-steel sarcophagus built in late 1986 to entomb the exploded Chernobyl Unit 4 nuclear reactor.

Because of gaping cracks in the sarcophagus roof, about 820,000 gallons of precipitation have infiltrated the reactor building, according to new estimates by the Ukrainian state committee for nuclear and radiation safety. That could nearly fill two Olympic-size swimming pools.

Once inside, the rainwater mixes with a four-foot-thick layer of lava-like meltdown residue in the reactor basement level.

The water becomes intensely radioactive as it dissolves strontium, plutonium and other radioactive material, known as radionuclides. Then it soaks into the ground because the sarcophagus has no sealed foundation.

Strontium-90, which comes from the fallout of a nuclear explosion, is dangerous because it can be assimilated into biological processes and be deposited in the bones of humans and animals.

If ingested by humans, strontium-90 readily attaches itself to the bones, damaging the bone marrow and inducing cancer.

At a scientific conference here last week, Ukrainian Institute of Geology researchers disclosed that they measured unexpectedly high levels of strontium-90 last year in test wells on the periphery of the reactor site.

Within one to nine years, "substantial" concentrations of strontium will begin infiltrating into the Pripyat River, located one mile away, predicted team leader Vadim Goudzenko.

About 40 miles downstream, the Pripyat empties into the Kiev Reservoir, which supplies fresh water for Kiev, the Ukrainian capital.

Mr. Goudzenko said Kiev water protection engineers "will need to be ready to meet this threat" in as little as two years.

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