Another close call

Missile strike near Ukrainian nuclear plant raises new fears. But the real question is why is it there at all?

By Linda Pentz Gunter

“What is Russia thinking?” asked CNN news anchor Ana Cabrera of her guest, retired Air Force colonel, Cedric Leighton, after reports that Russian missiles landed within 328 yards of the South Ukraine nuclear power plant on September 19.

But here’s the question that should have been asked — but rarely is: why are we still using such a profoundly dangerous technology to generate electricity? What are WE thinking? (We will leave aside here the conflicting accusations about who is shelling the reactors. The point is their very presence in a war zone and all that implies.)

Nothing has brought that risk into sharper focus than the Russian invasion of Ukraine, where 15 operational reactors at four sites are sitting duck targets that could release a radioactive nightmare if struck — whether accidentally or deliberately — by either side as battle rages.

When the invasion began on February 24, it was the closed Chornobyl site — scene of the world’s worst, and most notorious, nuclear power plant disaster in 1986 — that was first occupied. Although none of the four reactors there are operating any longer, there is a significant radioactive waste inventory on site. This was stirred up by Russian forces and their heavy equipment. Soldiers even dug sleeping trenches, apparently unaware of the radiation exposure risks that resulted.

Security cameras at the South Ukraine nuclear power plant captured missiles exploding just over 300 yards from the reactor building. (Image: Energoatom)

This time around, however, Chornobyl is of lesser concern than the four other nuclear sites in Ukraine, although it remains a potential disaster scene largely due to the irradiated fuel stocks on site.

The four active nuclear sites — at Rivne and Khmelnitsky in western Ukraine, and South Ukraine and Zaporizhzhia in the south and eastern regions— are generally described as “newer” than Chornobyl, but this is only true in the technological sense. Chornobyl was an old Soviet RBMK design, lacking containment. Incredibly, Russia still reportedly operates 10 Chornobyl-style RBMK reactors, albeit modified to try to avoid the fatal design flaws that contributed to the 1986 explosion and meltdown.

The operating reactors in Ukraine are VVER pressurized water reactors similar to those used in the United States, for example. The VVER is also a Russian design but with an actual containment, so in theory, more robust than the old RBMKs. However, there is a great deal of doubt that the VVERs, like any reactor today, are robust enough to withstand an onslaught of missiles under war conditions.

Yet, in another sense, the VVER reactors are far older than Chornobyl Unit 4 was when it exploded. That reactor had only been operating approximately two years when disaster struck. The present day 1,000 megawatt reactors in Ukraine have been operational mostly since the 1980s, accumulating much larger radioactive inventories. 

The three-reactor South Ukraine nuclear power plant is the latest to escape a close call from a missile strike. (Photo: Xy713/Wikimedia Commons)

As Beyond Nuclear has continued to warn, the radiological — and therefore health — consequences of a major breach of one of these reactors would be far worse than those of the 1986 Chornobyl accident.

But it needn’t take a war. The dangers presented by commercial nuclear power plants are inherent. They are there every day. They are made worse by warfare, which increases the likelihood of a nuclear disaster — and that same war now also increases the danger that nuclear weapons might be used.

And yet, as we continue to “play with fire”, as even IAEA chief, Rafael Grossi described the insanity of shelling near or at nuclear plants in Ukraine, the obvious connection isn’t made.

We’ve seen scientists and media outlets map out how far a deadly radioactive plume would spread if, say, Zaporizhzhia suffered a fatal missile strike. But scarcely if ever do they go on to observe that we are only holding our collective breath so tightly because of the persistent threat that these reactors pose on any given day. 

We don’t need to use nuclear power today. We never needed it. And it is a totally insane way to boil water.

Linda Pentz Gunter is the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear and writes for and curates Beyond Nuclear International.

%d bloggers like this: