The sarcophagus at the end of the Anthropocene

The recent ransomware attack hit some of the monitoring systems at the defunct Chernobyl nuclear power plant. (See Guardian article.) The malware locks the data on your computer and you have to pay $300 in bitcoin to a specified account in order to receive the code that unlocks your computer.

As it happens, the malware message that appears on computer screens neglects to tell you where to send confirmation that you have paid the money. So it’s not possible to retrieve the encryption key to restore your computer’s data.

The malware could be rogue software, or something put together by inexperienced amateurs, or adapted from other malware, or perhaps the malware masqueraded as  ransomware, but was actually doing something different: it stole data, brought down systems, or just sowed confusion, uncertainty and made us all nervous.

The computer downtime at Chernobyl meant that workers had to take routine radiation readings by walking around the exclusion zone and the site of the reactor, a task neither dangerous nor onerous — on this occasion.


Rogue software offers a stark reminder of just how precarious is the human-environment relationship, especially when it jeopardises radiation monitoring systems around a failed nuclear reactor.

Reactor 4 exploded in 1986, and spread radiation into the atmosphere, killing around 59 workers and residents and displacing 120,000 residents (according to the most consistent sources I can find), rendering an area of Ukraine virtually uninhabitable. That’s the exclusion zone, with a radius of approximately 30 kilometres.

The radiation from the reactor was eventually contained by a concrete and steel structure completed soon after the disaster. The structure was colloquially known as the sarcophagus.

Just last year, a massive new arched structure was slid into place to provide a further barrier to contain the radiation and reduce risk. That would enable workers eventually to dismantle sarcophagus #1. The whole project has cost €2.15 billion and was an impressive international effort. The structure is known officially as the New Safe Confinement (NSC or New Shelter).

From a distance, sarcophagus #2 looks like a giant marble tomb, still to be sealed around the edges. In fact it is a double skinned structure clad in stainless steel with an arched frame and a void in the space of the arch. The air pressure in the arch is kept higher than that of the space beneath to further contain any air born dust that might escape from the old reactor within.

Hot mess

The horror still within the centre of the old reactor is 200 tones of cooled radioactive lava formed when the reactor exploded, melting steel, concrete, sand and fissionable material. The toxic compound (mixture) has been named corium, and is a solidified radioactive mass. It is now just warmer than air temperature, and has a radioactive half life of over 30 years. (There’s plutonium and similar products distributed around the exclusion zone which are less lethal but have a half life of 24,000 years.) There’s a helpful cross section of the current structure here.

The outer sarcophagus has been built to last 100 years. The whole ensemble needs to be monitored, maintained, and requires constant power.

Dark tourism

The exclusion zone is now a popular day’s outing from Kiev, via specialist coach tours. The protocol for passing through the 30k and 10k exclusion zones adds to the area’s fascination. I reported on a visit in the previous post. You can’t enter the sarcophagus of course, but there are YouTube clips of the interior taken by engineers and journalists.




  1. ‘The sacrophagus at the end of Anthropocene’, is a powerful title. It is inscribing within its density a manifestation of Deep Time, also suggesting the half-life of Plutonium. It is also very intimidating the exposure to radiation via a malware attack on detection systems, because every-fall out zone can be quite labyrinthine without a navigation system. Reminds me of Fallout 4, retro-futuristic apocalyptic game. Another would be an American series, “The 100” where an artificial intelligence, E.L.E, a software preliminary designed to solve political problems, hacks into the nuclear warheads of the planet and fires it back on itself. Also the Ukrainian filmmaker Vladimir Shevchenko was documenting decontamination efforts being carried out by bio-bots, around that time. Later when Shevchenko developed his 35-mm film footage. he noticed that a portion of the film was heavily distorted and carried extraneous static interference and noise. He realised that what he had captured on film was the image and sound of radioactivity itself. The reason I find it interesting is I deem the film to be closer to architecture, as the film was not a representation of catastrophe but an actual toxic site for a toxic event in which a lethal dose of radiation was ingrained within the molecules of each and every silver halide particle of the film. Which is something similar to the Sacrophagus, bearing the radical implant of the event. All architecture I believe are/will-be/ nuclear narratives/corium.

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