Could Russia’s War in Ukraine lead to another Chornobyl-Type Global Nuclear Catastrophe?


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Russian attack

As the world worries about Putin’s potential use of nuclear weapons, there is a more significant nuclear catastrophe threat being ignored. 

In a little over a month, the Russian war on Ukraine has become a humanitarian and environmental disaster—already, thousands of people have been lost and the course of hundreds of thousands of lives has shifted forever, as refugees surge across borders in search of peace. As if that weren’t troubling enough, there’s a looming threat that transcends borders, and even continents: a nuclear catastrophe.

In addition to the defunct Chornobyl site of the 1986 meltdown, Ukraine has 15 nuclear reactors at four active nuclear power plants: Zaporizhzhia, South Ukraine, Khemlnytsky, and Rivno. Russia took over Chornobyl on the first night it invaded Ukraine and took control of the Zaporizhzhia plant—Europe’s largest nuclear plant—on March 4th. (Though they have promised to withdraw from the Chornobyl site, possibly due to radiation sickness, not all Russian troops have left as of press time).

The other three power plants are currently still under Ukrainian control, although Russian troop advances toward the South Ukraine plant have experts concerned. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the governing body for all nuclear power plants, has been actively working to establish clear frameworks for maintaining safety. But despite the director of the IAEA, Rafael Grossi’s call to “not go anywhere near nuclear facilities…with military operations,” both Chornobyl and Khemlnitsky have been affected by the conflict.

The Consequences of a Nuclear Explosion: “One Little Step from Destroying Our World”

If an explosion were to occur at one of Ukraine’s reactors, it would not only be devastating to the local environment and the people who live in the immediate-impact zone near the power plant. Radiation travels quickly and easily. “A nuclear accident anywhere is a nuclear accident everywhere, as the adage goes,” says Dr. Najmedin Meshkati, a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Southern California.

Scientists have done significant research following both the Chornobyl and Fukushima nuclear disasters, so the health impacts are well-documented. The stakes couldn’t be much higher.

Enough radiation in a short amount of time will kill humans and animals who are exposed to it. Still, lower levels of radiation can also cause radiation sickness and death over longer time frames of a few months if left untreated. Long-term, radiation exposure can also cause cellular mutations that lead to disease. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, “​​Radiation exposure increases the chance of getting cancer, and the risk increases as the dose increase: the higher the dose, the greater the risk.”

Severely physically and mentally handicapped, 5-year-old Igor was given up by his parents and now lives at a children’s mental asylum, which cares for abandoned and orphaned children with disabilities. It is one of several such facilities in rural southern Belarus receiving support from Chornobyl Children International, an aid organization established in 1991 in the aftermath of the world’s worst nuclear disaster. 2005. (Image copyright Ⓒ Gerd Ludwig, The Long )

Children and fetuses are especially sensitive to radiation exposure. Following the Chornobyl disaster, “The health minister of Belarus recorded a 161% increase in birth defects [in children born] from 1986 to 1992,” said Meshkati, who has studied the effects of the Chornobyl disaster since 1989.

There are also economic costs outside the incalculable costs to human life and health. Meshkati said that the total cost of the Chornobyl disaster was $600 billion. And that price tag wasn’t just borne by Ukraine—that includes the costs to neighboring states since, as Meshkati points out, “radiation transcends borders.” When the Chornobyl disaster occurred, neighboring Belarus had to deal with the loss of over 20% of its farmland that could no longer be used to grow food, as well as a “mass mortality” of plants and animals in the exclusion zone, a 20-mile radius around the power plant.

Safety Systems Must Be Maintained

Workers wearing plastic suits and respirators for protection pause briefly on their way to drill holes for support rods inside the shaky concrete sarcophagus, a structure hastily built after the explosion to isolate the radioactive rubble of Reactor #4. It is hazardous work: radiation inside is so high that they constantly need to monitor their Geiger counters—and are allowed to work only one shift of 15 minutes per day. 2005.  (Image copyright Gerd Ludwig, The Long Shadow of Chernobyl. 2014)

Even though the tremendous harms of radiation from a nuclear disaster are well-known, there have already been concerns around the active nuclear power plants in Ukraine.

The Zaporizhzhya plant reactor is housed in a steel-reinforced concrete building. Still, it is designed to withstand a plane crash or explosions, but a direct attack isn’t the only concern. Disruption of the electricity that powers critical systems at the plant can cause myriad issues, including improper cooling, which can leak radiation into the environment, even if a total meltdown doesn’t occur. Already, bombing campaigns by Russia have resulted in power cuts which in one case meant the cooling systems at Chornobyl were offline, and the fighting near the Zaporizhzhya nuclear plant also cut it off from the electricity grid. Backup diesel generators can only cover these outages for so long since they only have fuel for 48 hours. Ukrainian electrical grid operator Ukrenerho said that without power, the “parameters of nuclear and radiation safety cannot be controlled.”

The fourth reactor of the Chornobyl Nuclear Power plant. (Courtesy: Ievgen Skrypko)

Radioactive waste facilities still need active management to avoid leaks. The Ukrainian staff who work at both sites are the first line of defence if anything goes wrong. While they continue to manage the day-to-day operations at both sites, their typical schedules have been upended, which is never a good idea for safety protocols—and they were even forced to keep working at gunpoint.

Workers wearing plastic suits and respirators for protection pause briefly on their way to drill holes for support rods inside the shaky concrete sarcophagus, a structure hastily built after the explosion to isolate the radioactive rubble of Reactor #4. It is hazardous work: radiation inside is so high that they constantly need to monitor their Geiger counters—and are allowed to work only one shift of 15 minutes per day. 2005. (Courtesy: of Gerd Ludwig, The Long Shadow of Chornobyl)

Russian troops brought heavy military equipment into the radioactive zone close to the plant to capture Chornobyl. Those who fought radioactive fires in the area will likely suffer the health consequences because all this activity in this area is “Very dangerous,” says Kateryna Pavlova, the acting head of the state agency that runs the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone Management. “This territory is contaminated with transuranium elements.”

If fighting radioactive wildfires was not difficult enough. Russian troops have placed landmines in areas where firefighters battle the blaze.  “We received reports that Russia has placed landmines in areas in the exclusion zones. This, combined with high levels of radiation in Ukraine’s highly radioactive Red Forest, makes firefighting almost impossible. This is why we have sent in equipment that includes disometers to help the firefighters measure the radiation levels as they fight these fires,” says Jessica Williamson, Director for North America for World Information Transfer.

As of yesterday, there were reports that Russian troops withdrew from the area as a result of receiving high doses of radiation.

A digital elevation model of part of the Red Forest, obtained using the 3D-scanning LIDAR mounted on the unmanned aerial vehicle. The laser scan detects surface features at the millimetre-scale, allowing us to obtain a high-resolution topographic rendering of the site. (Courtesy: Dr Yannick Verbelen)

Radiation hot spots resulting from the Chornobyl nuclear accident.


Atomex dosimeter sent by World Information Transfer at $535 each to assist first responders fighting radioactive wildfires

There’s also the real threat of not just accidental nuclear meltdown, but Russia will steal nuclear fuel to create dirty bombs—and blame it on Ukraine. “This is state-sponsored nuclear terrorism,” says Meshkati.

Professor Serhii Plokhii, director of the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University and author of the seminal book, Chornobyl: A History of Nuclear Catastrophe, echoed Meshkati’s statements: “I certainly agree that this is state terrorism here. The two previous cases of takeover of civilian reactors—one in Argentina, another in South Africa—involved so-called non-governmental organizations. In those cases, the nuclear power plants were still under construction,” he said. Never before has a state actor taken over a nuclear reactor, says Plokhy. “The world and international organizations are not really ready. In terms of the international legislation, it almost doesn’t exist.”

Until the war ends, both Plokhii and Meshkati call for international cooperation, and a nuclear safety diplomacy initiative. Meshkati says it should come from Belarus since they will be so affected by any nuclear disasters in Ukraine.

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