30 years after nuclear catastrophe, Chernobyl has a new energy mission.
The Chernobyl meltdown on April 26, 1986, remains the most ruinous nuclear catastrophe in world history.
After the meltdown, the city and surrounding areas were evacuated, leaving 1,600 square miles of radioactive real estate rotting away in what was then the Soviet Union, now Ukraine.
30 years later, we're still discovering the long-term effects of this devastating fallout.
The total body count is estimated to be in the tens of thousands now, although it's difficult to determine exactly how many cases of cancer and other health complications in the surrounding areas can be attributed directly to the toxic waste still lingering in the ground.
To this day, the area remains abandoned except for occasional workers still struggling to contain the wreck in its concrete sarcophagus. But even the milk produced at the farthest edges of the disaster zone still contains 10 times the acceptable radiation limit.
On the bright side — which, ya know, is a pretty low bar here — the general lack of human activity means that wildlife in the area is thriving. So that's nice.
What do you do with 1 million acres of uninhabitable nuclear wasteland? It's no good as farmland, and you can't build houses...
But you can harvest sunlight.
That's right: The Ukrainian government is turning Chernobyl into one of the world's largest solar farms.
"The Chernobyl site has really good potential for renewable energy," Ukrainian environment minister Ostap Semerak explained at a recent press conference in London. "We already have high-voltage transmission lines that were previously used for the nuclear stations, the land is very cheap, and we have many people trained to work at power plants."
As crazy as it might sound to build another power plant on the site of such a famously poisonous disaster, we can be fairly confident that sun fuel doesn't come with the same toxic risks.
If this Chernobyl solar farm reaches fruition, it won't just energize the country. It'll dramatically transform it on a political level, too.
The estimated $1.1 billion project would produce 4 megawatts of energy, or enough to power up to 4,000 Ukrainian homes. "We want to be a successful Ukraine, to show people in the conflict zone that life is better and more comfortable with us," Semerak said at the press conference.
Clean, steady energy would obviously have a positive impact on the lives of those families. But it would also help the country wean off its reliance on neighboring Russia, which still provides Ukraine with much of its natural gas supply (except for when they don't, which is sometimes).
The relationship between Russia and Ukraine is complicated, to say the least. So in addition to the power-producing benefits of this potential new solar farm, energy independence offers an opportunity for the Ukraine to ally itself more closely with the European Union. As Semerak said, "We have normal European priorities, which means having the best standards with the environment and clean energy ambitions."
While Ukraine is still in the planning stages, this ambitious project represents a positive potential for a brighter, sun-fueled future.
There are still some hurdles to cross, of course. The big one right now is fundraising, which was the impetus behind Semerak's press conference in the first place. While solar power is undeniably more efficient and affordable, the up-front overhead costs run a little steep, even if they ultimately pay off.
There's also the fact that it'd be naive of Ukraine to enter into such a huge campaign without considering the full ramifications of nuclear fallout. Given the increased wildlife presence, it's entirely possible that the radioactivity has subsided enough that it would be safe to start a large-scale construction project — with proper precautions for the workers, just in case.
But this is definitely a situation where it's better to be safe than sorry.
Humans have done serious damage to the planet over the years. But if it does work out, the Chernobyl solar farm could be an inspiration for all of us.
This is not to the diminish the tragedy of April 26, 1986, of course.
But building a clean-energy plant on a radioactive graveyard is a strangely powerful reminder that our people and our planet can rebound from even the most terrible catastrophes.