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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