On April 26, 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant suffered an accident in one of its four reactors that sent a radioactive plume into the atmosphere. In the immediate aftermath, this caused dozens of deaths and contaminated tens of thousands of acres of land with radiation, leading to evacuation of some 35,000 people and the establishment of a 35km radius exclusion zone.

A substantial quantity of fallout landed in Belarus but some traces of radioactive material reached as far as Finland and Great Britain. The first western European knowledge of the accident was from radiation monitors in Sweden.

Since then, international organisations have been active at the Chernobyl site on a number of programmes of nuclear safety enhancement. Amec Foster Wheeler has been working there since the mid-1990s, starting with short-term safety upgrades to the three surviving reactors, ChNPP 1, 2 and 3.

We have also provided project management support for the decommissioning of the three undamaged units, and consultancy and project management services for the Liquid Radwaste Treatment Facility, which was completed in 2010, and the Interim Spent Fuel Storage Facility 2 (ISF2). These two projects have been funded by international (mainly European) donations through the Nuclear Safety Account, which is managed by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

The initial work was part of an EU-funded programme to address concerns about unsafe design characteristics in Soviet-designed RBMK reactors, similar to those at Chernobyl. Amec Foster Wheeler also carried out a similar programme at Smolensk NPP in Russia, which involved improvements to the safety margins and safety culture and strengthening the skills of operators and managers.

ISF2 is designed for the huge task of storing all the used fuel on the Chernobyl site for at least 100 years.

Originally, the facility was also intended to store reactor fuel assemblies and other components associated with fuelling such as the shield plug and the closure unit, some of which are highly active. However, the reactor assemblies are now being returned to the plant, where they will be stored in canisters as radioactive waste.

Amec Foster Wheeler’s team running the ISF2 Project Management Unit comprises four expatriates, 23 locally recruited employees and embedded members of staff from the client. Project completion is expected in 2017.

Very few UK-based companies have worked at Chernobyl at all, never mind for more than 20 years as Amec Foster Wheeler has. We have learned a great deal from playing a part in one of the most important nuclear decommissioning projects anywhere in the world.