As promising reports filter out of Ukraine that Chinese investors plan to invest $1bn in turning the radioactive wastelands of Chernobyl into a giant solar farm, the country comes to grips with a new environmental crisis.

Crises at all levels, in all departments…

Ukraine is currently suffering one of the worst periods of instability, corruption and impoverishment in its modern history. Financially, it is verging on bankruptcy and barely surviving on life support with whatever scraps of investment it can find. Industry and commerce have nearly come to a standstill as the country deindustrializes, convinced by an education system ran by fervent nationalists that their neighbours (or overlords) in Russia are holding them back from becoming a modernised Western EU state.

With a political system that protects politicians from persecution and awards seats to the highest bidder, the ruling party has become more of a gang than a driver of change. Fallouts, arguments and public humiliations of Ukrainian politicians can be seen on YouTube, and it doesn’t make for pleasant viewing.

Running out of options…

To avoid suffering a life with no money or opportunity, aside from becoming a gangster or prostitute, young people are fleeing from starvation and oppression. For those who stayed, this winter has been among the hardest on record, though hardly comparable with 1932-33, when between 7 and 10 million people starved to death in an event known as ‘Holodomor’.

Now, penniless and being shambolically managed, the country appeared to have failed to purchase sufficient natural gas or coal for the winter. If the supply runs out, the pipes will freeze and those in rural areas will be cut off and forced to live in frankly unlivable conditions.

Fifteen nuclear reactors supply more than half of Ukraine’s power, but it simply isn’t enough. Seeing these two problems hand in hand, a lack of fossil fuels and insufficient nuclear energy to cover the deficit does not equate to the solution that many suggest – building new nuclear reactors. However, two new reactors are under construction, and in a dangerous time to be doing so..

Credit: PIAZZA del POPOLO

Avoiding the mistakes of the past…

In November 2015, a group known as ‘Ukro-Nazis’ bombed an electrical grid supplying energy to Crimea, resulting in a blackout for several days. When the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant lost its electrical supply in March 2011, it caused a meltdown that affected the environment as far as Tokyo and still continues to damage marine life as radioactive substances leak into the Pacific. The bombing in Crimea was inches away from causing a disaster similar to those which had happened in Fukushima and Chernobyl before it. Expert actions managed to save the day, by running an emergency transmission line into the area from Russia. Simply put, if a nuclear reactor loses its electrical source, danger looms.

In Chernobyl, the effects of the 1986 incident continue on today, as the local area remains mostly off limits due to the radiation that affects much of the land and wildlife. Incredibly, a huge ‘sarcophagus’ was eventually built and installed over the site of the reactor leak to provide an airtight defence against continued radiation.

Does Ukraine have a cause for optimism?

Credit: Solar Trade Association

Fortunately for Ukraine, this winter was warmer than average, despite an exceptionally cold November, a story that can be mirrored all over the world thanks to the effects of climate change. What this abnormally ‘warm’ winter meant was that natural gas and coal didn’t quite run out, the electrical grid remained stable and the nuclear reactors all worked as they should.

With the country in a pitiful downward spiral, can they prepare better for the next winter and reduce the chances of a second Chernobyl-style accident? Will Chinese investment in a 2,500 hectare solar farm producing 1 Gigawatt of energy (over 4 million solar panels) provide the cushion for any future deficits?

Only time will tell.