Embroiled in a year-long war, Ukraine’s reactors face new threats
By Linda Pentz Gunter
A year ago, we warned of the significant and unacceptable risks to Ukraine’s 15 nuclear reactors, should they become caught up in a war zone as a consequence of an invasion by Russia. A year later, as we outlined in a Beyond Nuclear press release, those risks have become a reality. And in recent days, the scares and close calls have ramped up again.
Just last week, cruise missiles flew dangerously low over the South Ukraine nuclear power plant in the country’s western region. Then alarms were raised as observers noticed an alarming drop in the water level of the Kakhovka Reservoir, on which the six-reactor Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant depends for its essential cooling water supply.
A missile strike or loss of cooling water are just two of the many scenarios that could lead to a nuclear power plant disaster in Ukraine. Others include loss of electricity supply, human error or sabotage. The conditions of war just make any and all of these outcomes far more likely.
Indeed, these latest close calls and others prompted a recent statement by the head of Germany’s Federal Office for Radiation Protection, Inge Paulini, who warned that an incident at one of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants would have, “far-reaching consequences as long as the war continues.” And yet, she pointed out, “this danger already seems to be receding into the background of public awareness.”
Indeed, it has been a consistent pattern in the press not to take nuclear power risks seriously. Instead, the media publishes story after story, planted there by a well-orchestrated worldwide nuclear industry campaign, about the benefits of expanding nuclear power.
The Ukrainian energy ministry would seem to agree. Even in the midst of this devastating war, it has just made a deal with the American company, Westinghouse, to purchase two new AP1000 reactors. It is of course unrealistic to envisage these actually being built during a war and, if ever operational, they would simply become additional lethal targets.
In Ukraine, we have seen Russia routinely attack the electric grid, leading to periodic loss of offsite power at all four of Ukraine’s nuclear power plant sites. Zaporizhzhia, in the contested southeastern part of the country, has experienced multiple disconnections from the grid. So far, the diesel generators have functioned until offsite power was restored. But they are reliant on a steady replenishment of fuel, which could be impeded were the plant to come under siege.
A ready supply of cooling water is also essential so the drain down of the Kakhovka Reservoir is a serious concern. Why this is happening is unclear, but it is thought to be a possible Russian military tactic to flood strategic areas, making them impassable to advancing Ukrainian troops.
The unimaginable stress that continues to be experienced by the depleted workforce at Zaporizhzhia adds to the possibility of a fatal human error. Human error was at the root of both the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident in the United States and the 1986 Chornobyl Unit 4 explosion in Ukraine, without the contributing stress factor of war conditions.
The proximity of cruise missiles to nuclear plants is a nightmarish disaster waiting to happen, even if they are on their way to other targets, for now. But whether deliberate or accidental, a serious assault would release potentially enormous amounts of dangerous radioactive isotopes into the environment.
The reason damage from a nuclear power plant disaster is so serious is in part due to the longevity of the radioactive isotopes released and also because the fallout deposits these into the food chain by contaminating water, soil, crops and livestock.
Some of the enduring health outcomes include thyroid cancer, birth defects, still births, neonatal deaths, leukemias — especially among children — cancers and cardiovascular disorders. However, it should be noted that studies have also found elevated rates of leukemia in children living close to routinely operating nuclear power plants.
The international response so far has come mainly from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has called for safe zones around Ukraine’s nuclear power plants but so far has been unsuccessful in instituting these. And safe zones, while an essential first step, only prevent disaster resulting from a direct hit but are ineffective against loss of grid access or human error. Indeed, the IAEA has been struggling for more than two weeks simply to get a shift change of its observers at Zaporizhzhia accomplished. So far, conditions have remained too dangerous to allow this. “The Agency is doing everything it can to conduct the safe rotation of our staff there as soon as possible,” IAEA director, Rafael Grossi said.
Apart from being pre-deployed radiological weapons, nuclear power plants must, for safety reasons, be shut down when embroiled in a war. In Ukraine, where 50% of the country’s electricity is supplied by nuclear power, this means plunging an already terrified population into greater misery in the midst of winter. The lesson learned is that nuclear power, due to its inherent dangers, cannot serve as a reliable energy source. We must reject it as we do nuclear weapons and turn to other, more benign and renewable ways of supplying electricity.
Linda Pentz Gunter is the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear and writes for and curates Beyond Nuclear International.
Headline photo of Rocket in Kupiansk city (Kharkiv region of Ukraine) after Russian shelling. February 2023 by Олексій Мазепа / АрміяInform/Wikimedia Commons.
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