Nuclear power in the crosshairs of war


Ecoaction, an environmental NGO in Ukraine, and the European Chernobyl Foundation, hosted a briefing Thursday, March 10, updating the nuclear status of Ukraine — highlighting physical safety problems, and grave staffing concerns these facilities.

Experts raised the dangers caused by mistreatment of staff such as lack of food, rest, and heat, inability to obtain needed medication or change clothing to keep down radiation exposure, at the defunct Chernobyl nuclear site, location of one of the world’s worst nuclear catastrophes. Some of these workers were part of the original crew of clean up workers at the original catastrophe in 1986, known as “liquidators.” At this point there is no word on who may be alive or dead, and they are reportedly working under hostage-like conditions.

Although the site has ceased to generate power from nuclear reactor cores, it houses a number of irradiated fuel storage pools. Olga Kosharna — an expert in nuclear energy and nuclear safety, previously worked at the State Nuclear Regulatory Authority of Ukraine, stated that even though the fuel in the pools has cooled down compared to fuel just removed from a core, loss of power could cause ventilation to stop. Hydrogen could then build up and cause an explosion. If a certain amount of water is lost from the pools as a result of being hit by artillery, for example, a sustained chain reaction could occur, leading to melting of the rods and release of radiation to the outside.

Olexi Pasyuk of Ecoaction points out that if the shelter over the destroyed reactor were to be breached, it could still pose a danger because of the complication of the shelter structure, which would be difficult to repair. Further, there are rules about moving in the contaminated Chernobyl Zone to prevent resuspension of radioactive contamination; rules that are not being followed by the Russian military, posing additional danger to the already-stressed staff of the facility.

But the experts point out that operating reactors, such as the now occupied Zaporizhia (ZNPP) facility, pose greater and more complex dangers. The status of the Chernobyl site is clearer than at ZNPP, but it is also believed that staff there are under duress. Experts think that Russia is capturing the reactors to use as bases, knowing that the Ukrainians will not risk attacking the facilities because of the dangers such action would pose. At the time of the briefing there was breaking news that landmines had been placed next to ZNPP, but Beyond Nuclear has been unable to confirm this. Radiation monitors at the Chernobyl site have been off for the last few days and those at ZNPP are also off.

And while some of the operating reactors have typical containment structures, others lack robust containment, making an artillery attack a “nightmare scenario,” according to Jan Haverkamp — Senior expert nuclear energy and energy policy, Greenpeace. No containment structures at any of these facilities are designed to withstand an artillery attack, however.

Kosharna contends that Russia is violating International conventions for which it is a signatory including the international convention on nuclear terrorism, physical protection of nuclear material, and the taking of hostages.

Some presenters stated that the IAEA and the UN are not acting soon enough and Valerii Korshunov — a founder of NGO European Institute of Chernobyl — argues that the seizing of ZNPP was a UN violation and an act of international nuclear terrorism.

A link to the recording of this briefing will be posted here as soon as it is available.

Image: Eric Gaba (Sting), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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