Chernobyl’s New Safe Confinement as it appeared in October 2016. (Image: Tim Porter/Wikimedia)

A giant metal shield designed to contain radioactive waste at Chernobyl’s damaged nuclear reactor is being moved into place.

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Workers at the site of the world’s deadliest nuclear accident have started to move a shield, called the New Safe Confinement, that should prevent further radioactive material from leaking out of the damaged reactor over the next century. Ukraine’s environment minister, Ostap Semerak, described the start of the final construction phase as a historic step.

On April 26, 1986, the No. 4 reactor at the Chernobyl plant experienced a catastrophic meltdown, sending long plumes of highly radioactive fallout into the atmosphere. Over 30 workers were killed in the immediate aftermath, but an untold number of people suffered from various radiation-related health problems in the months and years that followed.

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Soon after the accident, the damaged reactor building was enclosed in a large radiation shield made of concrete. Experts started to fear that the hastily built sarcophagus would eventually start to decay and collapse, possibly releasing more radioactive material. To address the problem, a new shield was designed to prevent further leakage, and to allow for the partial demolition of the old structure in the future.

Chernobyl’s New Safe Confinement as it appeared in October 2016. (Image: Tim Porter/Wikimedia)

The upgraded radiation shield is made of corrosion-resistant steel, and measures 843 feet (275 meters) wide and 354 feet (108) meters tall. The sarcophagus comes at a cost of $1.6 billion ($1.5 billion euros), which is being funded primarily by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (ERBD).

Construction began over four years ago, but today marked the start of the final phase, as the massive structure is being moved into place by a system of hydraulic jacks. The ERBD describes the arch as the largest moveable land-based structure ever built, and one of the most ambitious projects in the history of engineering. Should all go as planned, the dome should be secure and in place by November 29.

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[Deutsche Welle, BBC]