The river running past the Chernobyl nuclear reactor is being dredged to create an inland shipping route, potentially resurfacing radioactive sludge from the 1986 disaster that could contaminate drinking water for 8 million people in Ukraine, scientists and conservationists have warned.
The dredging of the Pripyat began in July and is part of an international project to create the 2,000km (1,240-mile) long E40 waterway linking the Baltic and Black seas, passing through Poland, Belarus and Ukraine. The river – which snakes within 2.5km of the reactor responsible for the world’s worst nuclear disaster – has already been dredged in at least seven different places, five of which are within 10km of the reactor, according to the Save Polesia coalition.
This goes against recommendations from the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) that the Chernobyl exclusion zone should remain undisturbed due to long-lived contamination from the Soviet-era explosion. The tender to dig up 100,000 cubic metres of sediment was won by Ukrainian dredging company Sobi and work started in July this year, according to a post on the company’s Facebook page. The post says the waterway is important for improving river transport and trade with neighbouring countries, namely Belarus.
The Ukrainian government commissioned the dredging work for around 12m Ukrainian hryvnia (£320,000). While a feasibility study was commissioned by a consortium of government ministries, companies and the EU, a number of NGOs, including Save Polesia, WWF and BirdLife, have warned that the government is breaking the law by not doing an environmental impact assessment (EIA), which is required under Ukrainian regulations. They say the E40 feasibility study in 2015 by the Maritime Institute of Gdansk failed to properly look at the implications of radioactive contamination from dredging inside the exclusion zone, which is 100km upstream from Kyiv. The Ukrainian Ministry of Infrastructure, which is leading on the E40 project, did not return the Guardian’s request for comment in relation to the EIA.
The French NGO Association pour le Contrôle de la Radioactivité dans l’Ouest (Acro), following research commissioned by the Frankfurt Zoological Society, warned: “Constructing the E40 will have a radiological impact on the construction workers and the population depending on the rivers … the IAEA recommends to leave the contaminated sediments in the Kyiv reservoir in place, to avoid exposure of the population downstream. In this context the construction of the E40 is not feasible.”
Lead researcher Dr David Boilley, a nuclear physicist and chairman of Acro, told the Guardian: “The fact they want to build a dam and have boats going just by the bottom of the Chernobyl reactor – for me this is unbelievable. This is the most contaminated part of the exclusion zone.”
Dmitrij Nadeev, a manager at Sobi, told the Guardian the company did commission research on radiation and took soil samples. “The safety of our workers is a top priority,” he said. “Analysis showed that the work can be done safely, but all workers were provided with personal protective equipment (PPE) and dosimeters. During the work, scientists took daily water samples downstream of the dredger.”
Nadeev declined to share the radiation study with the Guardian or show evidence workers wore PPE. The Ukrainian ministry of infrastructure did not reply to a request for comment.
Soviet scientists long maintained there was no need to study the impacts of long-term radiation on the population and the official death toll from the 1986 Chernobyl disaster is just 54. However, some estimates suggest that lingering contamination from the explosion could mean one in five people in Belarus still lives on contaminated land. “The exclusion zone should be an exclusion zone for centuries – this means no people living in it and no activity on the river,” said Boilley.
The E40 would stretch from Gdańsk in Poland, through southern Belarus to Kherson in Ukraine. It would be Europe’s longest waterway, 25 times the length of the Panama Canal. Government ministries and a coalition of organisations are pushing through the construction. Small vessels can already pass through but it will be deepened and widened to allow vessels up to 80 metres long to pass.
A second feasibility study is currently being done in Poland to decide what route is best, with results expected in the next few months. The government appears to be proceeding with plans for the Siarzewo dam, one of 13 to 15 dams that would need to be built on the Vistula River. E40 construction costs are likely to be greater than €13bn (£11.7bn) – the majority of which will be spent in Poland.
Conservationists are also concerned about loss of biodiversity. The waterway would cut through a region called Polesia, an area two-thirds the size of the UK, often referred to as the Amazon of Europe because of its incredible diversity of wildlife, including 1.5 million migratory birds as well as bison, wolves, lynx and bears. Sixty internationally important wildlife sites on the E40 route would be affected by its construction.