World, it’s time to act in self-defence against Russian aggression. Radiation knows no borders
Political scientist Oleksandra Keudel warns of European and global consequences in the case of Russian attacks on Ukrainian nuclear power plants.
For nine horrible days, Ukraine has been resisting the cynical, barbaric Russian invasion. The world has responded with unprecedented sanctions. But it still remains deaf to Ukraine’s appeal to protect its skies from enemy planes and missiles.
Europeans are terrified of Putin’s nuclear button. This fear blinds them to the threat to nuclear safety, as Russia deliberately puts Ukraine’s 15 nuclear power plants at risk of damage. Radiation, as we know from the Chornobyl tragedy, has no borders, it could quickly spread across Europe in the event of an explosion. Putin most probably took this risk into account when planning the invasion. Hence, Putin’s war in Ukraine is a war against Europe and the whole world.
Ukrainian authorities have been repeatedly warning about the threat from Russian attacks on nuclear power plants. Russian troops seized control of the Zaporizhzhia NPP after a night of reckless shelling, causing a fire in the immediate vicinity of the reactors. In the morning, there were reports of an explosion. With Russia controlling this nuclear facility and continuing its move through Ukraine, the threats to the nuclear safety of Europe remain. Here is why:
Preventing large-scale man-made disasters is not Putin’s priority.
European leaders and experts seem to think that Putin needs Ukraine’s electricity, so he will take care of the safety of nuclear power plants. Ed Lyman, the senior global security scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, thinks Russia will avoid targeting nuclear power plants, “because they [Russia] don’t want to contaminate the country they’re trying to occupy—but, also, Ukraine requires electricity from those plants”. But observing Russia destroying Ukrainian cities over the past week, I believe this is a false assumption.
Putin doesn’t want to occupy Ukraine; he wants to destroy Ukraine as a modern and democratic country and to restore the former Soviet “Imperium” (Fiona Hill, Foreign Policy program Senior Fellow at Brookings). Considerations for nuclear safety are secondary when the goal is so grand. At the Russian-occupied Chornobyl power plant, where radioactive fuel waste is stored, increased radiation levels illustrate the aggressor’s negligence of nuclear safety precautions. Russia holds employees of Chornobyl NPP as hostages, with no staff rotation, without regard that operating a nuclear power plant under such conditions can jeopardize its safety. Reckless shelling of residential areas, chemical facilities, and nuclear waste storage sites are just some additional illustrations of Putin having no intention of being careful. The way Russian troops fired at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant with heavy artillery in the early hours of 4 March emphasizes just how little Putin cares about nuclear safety.
Nuclear disaster can be triggered in many ways, not only by a direct missile attack on a reactor.
In fact, Soviet Ukrainian nuclear power plants were constructed with this risk in mind. Yet, there are many things that can go wrong at a nuclear power plant in times of war as Mariana Budjeryn, a Ukrainian research associate with Harvard University’s Project on Managing the Atom tells the Guardian. The primary danger is the malfunction of the cooling system that can cause a meltdown, leading to a release of radioactive fuel and possibly explosions. Malfunction can happen when, for example, a missile explosion nearby causes a power outage, while simultaneously a fire destroys fuel reserves for backup generators. This is a scenario of a simultaneous failure of the primary and backup systems, which seems “unimaginable” in peaceful times and “becomes entirely conceivable” at times of war, as James Acton, co-director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace notes.
The Head of Energoatom, Ukraine’s agency for managing nuclear facilities, Mr. Kotin, noted that “Russian columns of military equipment, artillery, and powerful missile launch systems are regularly moving in the immediate vicinity of Energoatom’s nuclear facilities, and missiles explode near the nuclear power plants. This can lead to grave consequences on a global scale”. There are three more nuclear power plants in Ukraine, which are also in danger should Putin proceed further West into Ukrainian territory.
Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant is also at risk because continued battles over Zaporizhzhia city threaten the destruction of the highest dam of the Dnipro Hydropower Plant (DniproHES). “The Zaporizhzhia NPP (6 nuclear reactors), is located downstream from DniproHES at the side of Kahovske Reservoir. A possible result of damaging the DniproHES and, subsequently, the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant is the spread of radiation pollution at least all-around Europe”, says Prof. Mark Zheleznyak of the Institute for Environmental Radioactivity, Fukushima University. Due to the approach of Russian troops, local authorities had to stop all traffic on the dam in anticipation of an attack on March 3.
All these risks are not negligible considering the indiscriminate shelling of Ukraine with short- and medium-range artillery (e.g., Grad missile systems can reach 400–500 km) and airstrikes. There are also indications that airstrikes might become even more chaotic as Russia runs out of guided bombs.
Nuclear disaster is closer to Europe than it may seem to many. As the Chornobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 proved, there is nowhere to hide. At that time, air-borne radiation pollution spread right across Europe, reaching even the United Kingdom and Scandinavia.
Europe and the world must act to prevent history from repeating itself by standing firmly against Russian aggression. This is also European self-defense from nuclear and other types of environmental disasters. The Ukrainian energy minister, the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate, and Energoatom reiterated on March 3 their appeal to IAEA to ensure the safety of nuclear facilities and stop “Russian nuclear terrorism”. Along with Ukrainian environmental organizations, they urge NATO countries to close the sky over Ukraine for Russian planes and cruise missiles to prevent further atrocities against civilians and protect nuclear power plants from damage.
The author thanks Olena Kravchenko, Sofiya Shutiak, and Mark Zheleznyak for their valuable inputs. This text reflects my opinion.
Oleksandra Keudel, Ph.D., is a political scientist and a consultant for international organizations on good governance. She has taught at Kyiv School of Economics and Kyiv-Mohyla Academy (Ukraine).
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