On April 26, 1986, a dark cloud was cast upon the autonomous city of Pripyat and Chernobyl Raion, a now-vanquished administrative district just south of the Ukraine-Belarus border.
While that figurative darkness will likely never fully dissipate, the sun itself has never stopped shining on the 1,000-square-mile area known as the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, which is mostly forgotten except for the occasional news about surprising, four-legged residents looking for a new home. And now, more than 30 years after one of the worst nuclear power plant accidents in history transformed a huge swath of north-central Ukraine and beyond into a radioactive wasteland, the Ukrainian government is taking advantage of that abundant sunshine and transforming it into a source of clean energy.
One of the world's largest solar farms
That's right — a Ukrainian-German company has built and opened a solar farm at Chernobyl — 100 meters away from the dome that houses the nuclear power plant's reactor. The facility stands as one of the world's largest solar farms with 3,800 panels, a clean energy powerhouse that, as reported by The Guardian, is capable of generating almost a third of the electricity generated by the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant when it was operational. Construction began in December 2017 and was completed in fall 2018.
You see, there's not much that can be done with the land that falls within the exclusion zone. It can't be used for agricultural purposes due to soil contamination, and reestablishing housing in the area is out of the question. Today, the exclusion zone mostly functions as an accidental nature preserve with a rather robust disaster tourism industry.
With so much land and so few options for reinvention, the Ukrainian government identified 6,000 hectares (roughly 15,000 acres) within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone that can be used to produce electricity once again. The solar farm currently covers 4 acres (1.6 hectares) and can provide power for roughly 2,000 households. Ultimately, it could produce 100 megawatts of renewable energy. Considering that the four Soviet-era nuclear reactors at Chernobyl had an installed capacity of 4,000 megawatts, this would be a smaller yet still significant operation.
As The Guardian explains, there are distinct advantages to building a solar farm within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. For one, there's obviously available real estate — and a lot of it. Secondly, there's already electrical grid infrastructure in the area, high-voltage power lines included.
Strong sunshine = renewable energy
However, the most beneficial aspect to creating a renewable energy facility on the footprint of this notorious nuclear disaster site is an abundance of strong sunshine. The area, despite its forbidding reputation, is blessed with sunshine comparable to southern Germany, one of the foremost solar energy-producing regions in the world.
"The Chernobyl site has really good potential for renewable energy," Ukraine's environment minister Ostap Semerak explained during a news conference held in London in summer 2016. "We already have high-voltage transmission lines that were previously used for the nuclear stations, the land is very cheap and we have many people trained to work at power plants."
This high-profile pivot toward clean, renewable energy is helping the Ukraine lessen its reliance on Russian resources and potentially taking some pressure off its four remaining nuclear power facilities (15 reactors in total), which supply the nation with nearly half of its electricity needs.
Ukraine still relies on nuclear power
Unlike Japan, which aggressively embraced renewable energy following 2011's tsunami-triggered Fukushima Daiichi disaster and has been cautious in bringing its nuclear facilities back online, the Ukraine remained reliant on nuclear in the wake of the Chernobyl catastrophe. Today, the Ukraine is one of the top 10 nuclear energy producers in the world. Only France boasts a higher percentage share of domestically produced electricity sourced from nuclear power plants.
While plans to build additional nuclear facilities across the Ukraine will still likely move forward, it would appear that long-ignored solar power has, at long last, taken a seat at the proverbial table.
Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in August 2016.