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Chernobyl cap could be casualty of Ukraine crisis

  • Chernobylarc4.jpg

    The first half of the arch has already been completed and sits in a waiting position near reactor four until the second half is finished. (SSE Chernobyl NPP photo)

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    The arch will cost over $1.5 billion once completed and will envelope reactor four to replace the crumbling concrete sarcophagus already in place. (Reuters)

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    A rendering of what the containment arch at Chernobyl will look like once completed. The project was scheduled to be finished by October 2015 but is now delayed indefinitely. (Reuters)

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    A hazard sign indicating radiation is seen in front of a containment shelter for the damaged fourth reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. (REUTERS/Gleb Garanich)

  • Chernobylarc1.jpg

    A containment shelter for the damaged fourth reactor (L) and the New Safe Confinement (NSC) structure (R) at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant are seen from Ukraine's abandoned town of Pripyat. (REUTERS/Gleb Garanich)

Ukraine's political and economic meltdown could spell doom - or at least delay - for a containment dome being built over Chernobyl.

Construction of the coated steel, climate-controlled sarcophagus was begun in 2010 to cover the site of the infamous 1986 meltdown, scene of the worst nuclear accident in history. But finishing the $2.1 billion project requires money and, likely, stability from the Ukraine government and international backers. Planned in sections comprised of two 300-foot-high arches that will span the site and then be walled on the sides, the project will never be completed by the original goal of 2015, officials acknowledge.

“Delay of the project should end immediately."

- Roksolana Stojko-Lozynskyj, of the Ukranian Congress Committee

And given Ukraine's economic and political crisis, it's anyone's guess when the project, designed to last at least 100 years, will ever be completed. Called the New Safe Confinement Arch project, it is  funded by Ukraine and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. But Ukraine is broke, and donor nations may be leery of investing amid political instability.

“In our financial analysis we are of course making the working assumption that it will not receive any money from Ukraine in the near term,” Vince Novak, director of nuclear safety at the EBRD said in a recent interview with Nuclear Engineering magazine.

Chronically cash-strapped Ukraine has been in turmoil for months after a revolution ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, who had backed out of a deal to join the European Union in favor of a funding package from Russia. In recent weeks, tensions between Ukraine and Russia have flared, after Russia invaded Crimea and signaled that it may want an even bigger piece of its neighbor.

The planned structure would entomb the reactor building and be built of steel coated with polycarbonate, which is effective at degrading radiation levels. The first half of the arch was recently completed and is being held in a makeshift waiting area near the plant site, but the second half is on hold. 

Novak said it is not just funding that is holding up the project, some 85 miles north of Kiev.

“It [the delay] has been largely driven by the finalization design and to a certain extent the design of the auxiliary system,” he told FoxNews.com.

The new containment cap would replace the existing sarcophagus which was constructed immediately after the reactor meltdown in 1986. Made from concrete, the original containment structure at the reactor building is starting to deteriorate, leaving open the possibility that more radiation could escape if there is even a partial collapse.

Activists and experts say containing Chernobyl is a top priority.

“Delay of the project should end immediately,” Roksolana Stojko-Lozynskyj, of the Ukrainian Congress Committee, told FoxNews.com. “It ecologically vital to the region and should go on regardless of what is currently happening. It’s not only a matter of safety for Ukraine but for Europe as a whole.”

The Chernobyl disaster occurred in in April 1986 while Ukraine was still under the rule of the Soviet Union. It killed 31 immediately, though thousands more are believed to have died or suffered from radiation poisoning. The nearby city of Pripyat was left a ghost town, and a 1,000-square-mile area around is dubbed the "Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, although some people insist on living there. 

Cancers and deformities have been reported in the last few decades in the region in Northern Ukraine as well as nearby Belarus.

It would seem that it is in everyone's interest to seal off the source of the deadliest nuclear accident in history.

“You would think Russia would have an interest in finishing the structure,” Jonathan Lesser, an economist specializing in energy, told FoxNews.com. “Then again, they could use completion as yet another bullying point to continue their moves on Ukraine.”