World, it’s time to act in self-defence against Russian aggres­sion. Radiation knows no borders

Photo: Dmytro Smo­ly­enko /​​ Imago Images

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.

If you are wondering how you can act against the Russian war, please see the infor­ma­tion here and attend rallies in your area.

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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