Rodina chose a site for its 1 MW solar power plant just a few hundred meters from the reactor, so the project could better serve as a symbol of the possibilities of working in restricted areas.
Built at the epicenter of the world's worst nuclear accident, the Chernobyl Solar Power Plant aims to prove that even in the face of disaster, there is always hope. This symbolism is more important than ever as Ukraine needs strength during the darkest period of the country's modern history.
Launched in October 2018, the 1 MW solar farm is located just opposite the giant sarcophagus that sheltered the infamous nuclear reactor that turned a vast swath of fertile land into a post-apocalyptic desolation some thirty years ago .
The importance of this project to the future of the Chernobyl area cannot be overestimated.
“No one before us had shown interest in investing in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone,” said Evgeniy Variagin, chief executive of Kiev-based Rodina, which built and manages the PV complex with German developer Enerparc AG. power station.
Variagin said it's easier to take the road less traveled than to be a pioneer. He explained that when companies started evaluating the idea of installing solar panels in restricted areas, it quickly became apparent that there were no regulations on how to do this.
"No one thinks about it because Chernobyl is a black hole in the middle of Ukraine," Variagin said. "In order to comply with the rules of working in restricted areas, we have to urge the authorities to put these rules in place."
Rodina commissioned a project of 3,800 solar panels in only about 45 days. Before that, however, the company spent five years working with state managers overseeing the exclusion zone to lay the legal foundation for the project, Variagin recalled, calling the time frame "absolutely crazy."
Still, the effort paid off. Now, everyone who wishes to follow Rodina's lead and operate in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone has clear, detailed regulations and guidelines to follow.
02The Road of Thorns
Over the past decade, Rodina has built a series of solar power plants in the post-Soviet region outside Russia. “Since 2013, we have designed, built and commissioned more than 1 GW of solar parks in the region,” said Variagin. But Chernobyl was unlike any other project the company had ever worked on.
"Radiation is not a single phenomenon," he said. "In fact, different radioactive elements are hidden in different layers and different parts of the environment. They may pose different threats and have different half-lives."
One of the key requirements for working in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is an almost complete ban on excavation operations. Therefore, the structure is stabilized by a ballast system and all cables run on the surface. During the construction phase and every stage of maintenance, workers are required to carry radiometers and adhere to strict health, safety and environmental requirements.
"Of course, meeting these requirements costs a fortune, but it's never a question of money," Variagin said. The ultimate goal, he explains, is to show that a company can make a small part of the world a better place.
"In addition, we have successfully demonstrated our engineering capabilities, which we can safely say are recognized throughout the world," Variagin said, citing the multiple international awards the plant has received.
Various restrictions and dangers initially made some parts of the solar community skeptical about the future of solar power plants in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. However, Variagin said the station ran smoothly from the start.
03The storm gathers
In February 2022, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone was temporarily occupied by Russian forces advancing toward Kiev. Unlike many other solar plants that unfortunately were located in frontline areas or occupied territories, the Chernobyl solar plant did not suffer any damage.
"The invaders laid mines at the station, but the flags of Rodina, Enerparc AG, Chernobyl Solar Energy Corporation, Germany and Ukraine remained intact throughout the occupation," Variagin said.
This is a truly unique situation. "I can't say for sure, but they may have never seen anything like this (a solar farm in a nuclear area) before and decided not to go in because they weren't sure if it was safe," he added.
"So thank God, the Ukrainian army and the people. We survived as a symbol and as a project," Variagin said. He added that the fact that the Russians took control of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant was alarming in itself because it posed a direct threat not only to nearby solar power plants but to millions of people. "This is a stupid act," he said. “Can you imagine something run by a 19-year-old soldier with a Kalashnikov assault rifle that could blow up all of Europe?”
When choosing the location for the solar power plant, Rodina chose an area a few hundred meters from the Chernobyl reactor. The idea is to show that operations can still be carried out in what appear to be the most dangerous parts of the area, although Variagin stresses that the entire exclusion zone is contaminated and that there are no major differences in radiation levels between various parts of the area.
Its location may have saved the solar farm. "I think they might want to do something with the nuclear power plant, but they're scared because it's so close to the old nuclear storage facility," Variagin said.
After Russia withdrew its troops from northern Ukraine at the end of March 2022, the solar farm passed some inspections and quickly resumed operations.
Before Russian troops crossed the Ukrainian border, sparking Europe's worst conflict in decades and plunging the national economy into chaos, Rodina harbored ambitious expansion plans for its Chernobyl nuclear power plant. At the end of last year, the company planned to increase its power generation capacity by 12MW and install two more phases of 20MW this year. All development plans are currently on hold.
"If the war stops today, we start construction tomorrow," Variagin said, acknowledging that Rodina is in survival mode, like almost everyone in Ukraine right now.
"Part of our team went into the military," Variagin said. "Before the war, we had 500 employees; now there are only 250. Some people moved out of Ukraine." He said the company continued to pay employees who went to the front lines and was involved in other projects through the Green Chernobyl Foundation. Several charitable activities helped Ukraine gradually move toward victory.
Turning to long-term prospects, Variagin said he believed Ukraine would eventually recover, rebuild its economy and expand its renewable energy industry. However, it is difficult to say when this will happen, as the end of hostilities is still far away.
"We have no choice but to win this war," he said. "We have paid a high price. This hurts me more than anything else: We are now losing the best minds who defend our country. Capacity can be rebuilt and money can be earned, but when lives are lost, There’s nothing you can do.”