Critical Update: Containing Chernobyl

Serhii Barylo/

We’re joined by an engineer who helped build the final containment structure at Chernobyl, in a race against time, bureaucracy and the aftermath of the Soviet Union.

Innovating new processes and technologies is notoriously difficult when government is involved. But those challenges are amplified when governmental structures break down—and even more so when lives are on the line.

That was the experience for Eric Schmieman, a now-retired chief engineer for Battelle Memorial Institute, a non-profit scientific research company that operates one of the Energy Department’s national labs, the Pacific Northwest National Lab. In the late 1990s, Schmieman and his team at Battelle were tapped to head to Chernobyl—the infamous site of the largest nuclear accident in history—to build a never-before-attempted containment system for the radioactive facility.

The 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear facility in Ukraine—then part of the Soviet Union—has become shorthand for nuclear mishaps and other potentially world-ending disasters. A decade after the initial disaster, Schmieman and the team worked on what became known as the New Safe Confinement structure designed to secure the remnants of a reactor that continues to leak radiation to this day.

The team was in a race against time, trying to design, build and install a containment system before the existing structure gave way, which would have resulted in a bigger disaster than the original explosion, according to Schmieman.

The New Safe Confinement team faced problems never before tackled, coupled with the difficult bureaucratic conditions left in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse. While their work was unique, the barriers Schmieman and the team faced along the way will sound familiar to many federal employees trying to solve problems in innovative ways.

Click below to listen to the entire interview, plus our roundup of lessons learned throughout this season on innovation. You can also download this episode and all of Season 3 now in the App Store or Google Play.