The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

In Ukraine, fear of nuclear plants riven by Russia cuts to the core

Written by

Chernobyl Anniversary Image 95ygu3xoy2ou9ehve2dk952The Chornobyl Nuclear Plant in Ukraine is seen in 1986 after a fire devastated the plant and led to radiation emissions that spread across the European continent. United Nations

36 years after the Chornobyl crisis, Ukraine presents a test for nuclear reactor survivability

This story was originally published in The Revelator.

CHORNOBYL, UKRAINE — It took less than a minute after an unexpected power surge for one of the nuclear reactors at Chornobyl (Chernobyl in the Russian spelling) to explode on April 26, 1986, ripping the roof off and spewing dangerous toxins into the air.

The event, and emergency cleanup that followed, left 30 workers dead, thousands exposed to cancer-causing nuclear material and later death, and a legacy of radiation. Now, 36 years later and with war raging, Ukraine is desperate to prevent another nuclear disaster.

Nuclear reactors generate more than half of the country’s power. Ukraine is the first country with such a large and established nuclear energy program to experience war, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The country’s 15 nuclear reactors, housed in four power plants, have layers of safeguards to prevent core meltdowns like the one that happened in 1986, when Chornobyl was part of the Soviet Union. But wartime is far from normal conditions, and experts warn that Russian military action poses numerous threats to these facilities.

Andrey Ozharovsky, a Russian engineer turned anti-nuclear activist, said Ukraine’s nuclear infrastructure is “quite vulnerable” to the chaos surrounding military attacks.

The Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant and the 20-mile exclusion zone around it, set up to limit further spread of radioactive material following the 1986 disaster, were captured by Russian forces on Feb. 24. It was in their control until they withdrew from the site on March 31.

Although Chornobyl is not an active nuclear power plant, the massive cap covering the reactor that exploded decades ago still needs to be maintained to prevent further radiation leakage.

Sensors put in place by the Ukrainian Ecocentre in case of an accident reported a spike in radiation levels shortly after the capture, likely due to Russian military vehicles stirring up radiation in the environment.

The IAEA said the rise wasn’t enough to pose a public health hazard.

Ozharovsky, who was one of the first to raise an alarm about the recent spike at Chornobyl, said he’s concerned that radioactive dust from the site could spread across the continent.

“The most dangerous thing is that they can bring radioactive particles in their hair, in their clothes and their boots,” he said.

Olga Kosharna, a member of the Ukraine Nuclear Society, urged experts to create an updated map of radioactive contamination in the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone and to restrict movement in the area.

Ukrainian officials released footage, recorded since Russia’s withdrawal, which appears to show that Russian troops had built trenches and other fortifications in parts of the exclusion zone. Those actions may have further disturbed radioactive material in the soil and plants.

On April 26, Rafael Mariano Grossi, director general of the IAEA, and a team of agency experts arrived in Chornobyl “to conduct nuclear safety, security and radiological assessments, deliver vital equipment and repair the agency’s remote safeguards monitoring systems,” according to a statement from the agency.

Grossi says radioactivity levels at Chornobyl have returned to “normal” after the “very, very dangerous” Russian occupation of the site.

Russia captures nuclear plant

Chornobyl isn’t the only concern. Ukraine’s active nuclear-power facilities are also at risk.

On March 4, Russian forces captured Europe’s largest active nuclear-power plant, Zaporizhzhia, located in southeastern Ukraine. During intense fighting one of the site’s buildings caught fire, but didn’t harm the plant’s six reactors, and no radiation was released.

Ukrainian technicians continue to monitor Zaporizhzhia, but the country’s regulators have claimed that Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear power company, has engineers at the plant who are giving orders to staff. Ukraine reports that plant management actions require approval from the Russian commander, according to the IAEA.

“Who is now in charge of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant?” asked Ozharovsky. “The Russian army is around, but armies aren’t nuclear engineers.”

Rosatom released a statement on March 12 and denied that they’re managing the operation of Zaporizhzhia. They characterized their staff’s presence at the plant as “consultative assistance” that takes place “on a regular basis.”

Grossi expressed “deep concern” about the situation in a statement last month.

Since then, there’s been more reason for alarm.

On April 16, three missiles flew over the South Ukrainian nuclear power plant, Yuzhnoukrainsk, according to Energoatom, Ukraine’s state-run nuclear power company.

Then on April 26 Energoatom reported that two cruise missiles flew over the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant.

“The flight of missiles at low altitudes directly above the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant site, where seven nuclear facilities with a huge amount of nuclear material are located, poses huge risks,” said Petro Kotin, Energoatom’s acting president, in a statement released on the company’s Telegram channel. “After all, missiles can hit one or more nuclear facilities, and this threatens a nuclear and radiation catastrophe around the world.”

The day before, Energoatom reported that Russia fired missiles over the cooling pond of the Khmelnytskyi Nuclear Power Plant in northwest Ukraine.

Russia hasn’t commented on Energoatom’s claims.

Kosharna wrote in an email that if a missile hit one of the plants the consequences would have been “catastrophic” for the world.

A stray missile damaging the plant could cause an explosion that would disrupt the power supply. Power is needed to ensure continuous cooling of the fuel rods to prevent a meltdown.

Typically nuclear plants use back-up generators to maintain power with a grid disruption and keep the cooling systems functioning normally. In wartime fuel shortages are common, and this risks the stability of the generators. Ukraine’s current shortage is only getting worse, according to the Gas Transmission Operator of Ukraine, a gas pipeline operator.

If the grid goes down and the generators are out of fuel and the cooling systems fail, there’s a last resort to prevent radiation from spreading. Containment structures around the reactors are designed to block any release of radiation, but they’re also vulnerable to missile attacks.

Reactor failure isn’t the only significant risk to the operation.

Staff operating facilities under extreme stress also poses a problem, Ozharovsky says, because any mistake they make on the job could be calamitous.

There are also other onsite dangers. Spent nuclear fuel storage pools that are a part of the waste-disposal system contain radioactive material. If they’re damaged the liquid could be released from containment, causing a massive spread of radiation. Japanese scientists considered this to be the “worst-case scenario” of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, which had a series of meltdowns after a tsunami struck the plant in 2011.

Ozharovsky said he doesn’t believe the Russian military would deliberately sabotage one of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants because it would threaten their interests. But he added that even the possibility that the nuclear power plants could be harmed accidentally should trigger worldwide alarm.

“For me it’s scary,” he says. “All the other nuclear power plants, like Khmelnytskyi, like Rivne, like South Ukraine (Yuzhnoukrainsk); they can be damaged during this war. And the international community needs to take care of that.”

Any attack on a nuclear plant is a breach of international humanitarian law. The Geneva Convention’s Article 56 considers attacking a nuclear power plant a war crime.

“I hope that many other countries who still have nuclear energy on their territory will rethink physical safety, military safety,” Ozharovsky said. “That’s a challenge no one country can solve.”

Rate this item
(1 Vote)
Published in News

Related items

  • There’s a whole world in the dirt beneath your feet
    in News
    Dust bowl soilThe Dust Bowl of the 1930s resulted in the displacement of tons of soil in the midst of a drought similar to the one that grips the Southwest today. Library of Congress
     

    Dirt is far from just dirt. It’s a foundation for life.

    This story was originally published by The Revelator.

    Look down. You may not see the soil beneath your feet as teeming with life, but it is.

    Better scientific tools are helping us understand that dirt isn’t just dirt. Life in the soil includes microbes like bacteria and fungi; invertebrates such as earthworms and nematodes; plant roots; and even mammals like gophers and badgers who spend part of their time below ground.

    It’s commonly said that a quarter of all the planet’s biodiversity lives in the soil, but that’s likely a vast understatement. Many species that reside there, particularly microorganisms such as viruses, bacteria, fungi and protists, aren’t yet known to science.

  • The South’s hidden climate threat
    in News

    Spreading avens in bloom 9406109069Spreading avens are seen in bloom in the Appalachians. The endangered long-stemmed perennials survive in higher mountain elevations but their lack of space to move higher in elevation in times of climate change and warming further threaten the plant.  USFWS

    It’s not just the coastlines that are recording climate change. Even the mountains of North Carolina are feeling the heat — including some endangered plants

    “Atlanta reporter Dan Chapman retraced John Muir’s 1867 trek through the South, including the naturalist’s troubling legacy, to reveal environmental damage and loss that’s been largely overlooked.” This is an excerpt published by The Revelator from his book, A Road Running Southward: Following John Muir’s Journey Through an Endangered Land.

    BOONE — It’s a wonder anything survives the ice, snow, and winds that pummel the ridge, let alone the delicate-seeming yellow flowers known as spreading avens.

    The lovely, long-stemmed perennials are exceedingly rare, officially listed as endangered, and found only in the intemperate highlands of North Carolina and Tennessee. They sprout from shallow acidic soils underlying craggy rock faces and grassy heath balds. At times blasted with full sun, but mostly shrouded in mist, the avens are survivors, Ice Age throwbacks that refuse to die. Geum radiatum is only known to exist in fourteen places, including hard-to-find alpine redoubts reached via deer trail or brambly bushwhacking.

  • Countless living things are under attack in Ukraine
    in News

    falco cherrugThe Ukrainian roosting areas of the endangered Saker falcon  face a threat from military conflict precipitated by the Russian invasion. International Union for Conservation of Nature 

    10 ways war is bad for the natural world

    This story was originally published by The Revelator. Here's a related story about endangered species in Ukraine threatened by the invading forces of Vladimir Putin.

    As war and conflicts rage on in Ukraine, Yemen, South Sudan, Libya and other places around the globe, it’s important to look at the long-term effects of military strife, which can destroy the environment as easily as it destroys lives. (Thousands of humans have already perished in the invasion.)

    “Russia’s military operations in a heavily industrialized, densely populated nation containing numerous refineries, chemical plants, and metallurgical facilities further compounds the threat of these hostilities for Ukraine’s people and their environment, both now and for years to come.”

    Here are 10 of the most dangerous ways war affects the animals and plants around us — many of which also harm humans in the process. 

  • New year. Old challenges.

    168691309 4048180571871818 2861942263530178348 n

    From plastic pollution to extreme weather and the extinction crisis, the year ahead promises tough fights, enormous challenges and critical opportunities

    This story was originally published by The Revelator.

    A new year brings with it new opportunities — and more of the same environmental threats from the previous 12 months.

  • Nuclear energy update

    Sep 13  Noon EST

    Current Issues in the Nuclear Field
    Richard H “Chip” Lagdon Jr.
    Technical Society of Knoxville (TSK)

    Zoom Webinar — Free and open to the public — advance registration required

    Richard Lagdon is Professor of Practice in Nuclear Engineering at the University of Tennessee. He also is Engineering Manager, Systems Integration and Chief Engineer, Nuclear Operations & Safety with Bechtel National Inc. Reston, VA.
    He will review the status of current projects for Natrium and VTR fast reactors, the challenges of advanced reactor licensing and how the development of the Nuclear Licensing Course NE486/586 at UT reckons with these challenges. 

    He has forty years of progressive nuclear experience managing projects, developing technical policy, interfacing with stakeholders and developing long range plans. He is an accomplished nuclear professional, practiced in engineering, emergency operations, plant startups and conduct of operations while supporting operational goals.

    From working as Shift Test Engineer for the reactors of the nuclear Navy to developing life cycle maintenance plans for aircraft carriers, Captain Lagdon’s broad range of assignments over 30 years in the Navy Reserves, earned him the Leo Bilger award for outstanding leadership. The civilian side of his career included a decade as Chief of Nuclear Safety in the U.S. Department of Energy, where he lead nuclear construction reviews for projects totaling more than $15 billion.

    While some hope that nuclear energy will end the climate crisis others point out that it will be too expensive and take too long to scale up while climate disasters grow exponentially. What most can agree upon is that the reliable output of existing nuclear plants remains indispensable for the foreseeable future and that maintaining their safety is paramount.

    The webinar organized by the Technical Society of Knoxville, which provides Professional Development Hour confirmation to attending professional engineers, is hosted by the Foundation for Global Sustainability (FGS).
    FGS facilitates educational events to inform the public and foster better understanding of complex environmental, social and economic issues that impact the resilience of communities and the natural life support systems of planet Earth. Views and opinions expressed by event organizers and participants do not necessarily reflect the views of FGS. FGS neither endorses any product or service mentioned nor warrants for accuracy, completeness or usability of the information.

  • A lot of aquatic life is now swimming, crawling, balling and growing in a weird pharmaceutical stew

    The Revelator: Residual drugs largely unfiltered by existing wastewater plants

    Aquatic species around the world are exposed to at least 600 types of residual drugs, ranging from anti-inflammatories to antidepressants, and it’s not fully understood how these chemicals will ultimately affect marine ecosystems.

    Some research indicates that a species of crayfish is emboldened by antidepressant compounds in the presence of predators, lessening its flight response. Scientists have also noted the presence of pharmaceuticals among invertebrates, as well as seaweed.

    More work is needed to further document the effects of the chemicals on the behavior and reproduction of aquatic life, but people can temper the introduction of pharmaceuticals in the first place by never flushing medications down the toilet or any other drain, and checking in on the filter technologies in place at their local wastewater treatment plant. Some advanced carbon filters can successfully remove pharmaceuticals from wastewater before it’s released into the environment.

  • One town tried to eliminate waste. Plastic posed a problem.

    Kamikatsu Yuki Shimazu

    Kamikatsu, Japan, famously declared its goal was to go waste-free by 2020. It didn’t quite get there.

    This story was originally published in The Revelator

    One of the many unfortunate outcomes of the coronavirus pandemic has been the quick and obvious increase in single-use plastic products. After COVID-19 arrived in the United States, many grocery stores prohibited customers from using reusable bags, coffee shops banned reusable mugs, and takeout food with plastic forks and knives became the new normal.

    Despite recent scientific evidence that reusables don’t transmit the virus, the plastic industry has lobbied hard for a return to all things disposable plastic. Inevitably, a lot of that plastic will continue to flow into our environment.

    While COVID-19 has certainly thrown a wrench into the hard-earned progress we’d been making in reducing waste, eliminating plastic pollution entirely was always going to be challenging — with or without a pandemic. The jarring rise of single-use plastics is an expedited version of a familiar trend. Plastic production has been steadily increasing for quite some time.

    As a zero-waste advocate, I’ve seen how the tsunami of plastic continuously being produced and flooding our planet has made achieving zero-waste goals incredibly difficult. The sheer amount makes it hard to safely and efficiently dispose of plastic, no matter how hard we try.

    But as I examine the problem, and search for solutions, I keep coming back to one noteworthy example. 

  • Face your fears: It’s time to have a global conversation about spider conservation
    in News

    Sue Cameron USFWSU.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Susan Cameron searches moss mats for the spruce-fir moss spider in this USFWS photo.

    European spidey senses should give us pause across the pond.

    This story was originally published by The Revelator.

    Despite their enormous ecological values, new research reveals we don’t understand how most arachnid species are faring right now — or do much to protect them.

    Spiders need our help, and we may need to overcome our biases and fears to make that happen.

    “The feeling that people have towards spiders is not unique,” says Marco Isaia, an arachnologist and associate professor at the University of Turin in Italy. “Nightmares, anxieties and fears are very frequent reactions in ‘normal’ people,” he concedes.

  • In historic move, Tennessee Valley Authority finally swears off coal; are power replacements up in the air?
    in Air

     

    “Our intelligence and flexibility as a society will be tested as the financial and industrial giants all figure out what they’re going to do.”

    The Tennessee Valley Authority intends to phase out its aging fleet of coal plants by 2035, potentially replacing the age-old carbon-rich power source with increased use of natural gas and refreshed, concentrated supplies of nuclear energy as the vast utility moves to drastically reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

    The plan emerged Wednesday, about a month after the Biden administration called on the U.S. power sector to eliminate pollutants linked to climate change by 2035.

    The Tennessee Valley Authority is the largest public provider of electricity in the United States. It provides wholesale power to every major municipal provider in Tennessee, as well as other metropolitan areas and smaller utility districts and cooperatives within its seven-state service area.

  • Saving America’s “Amazon” in Alabama
    Book cover Saving Americas Amazon in Alabama

     

    Alabama is home to remarkably diverse ecosystems:
    They face dire threats.

    This story was originally published by The Revelator.

    When longtime environmental journalist Ben Raines started writing a book about the biodiversity in Alabama, the state had 354 fish species known to science. When he finished writing 10 years later, that number had jumped to 450 thanks to a bounty of new discoveries. Crawfish species leaped from 84 to 97 during the same time.

    It’s indicative of a larger trend: Alabama is one of the most biodiverse states in the country, but few people know it. And even scientists are still discovering the rich diversity of life that exists there, particularly in the Mobile River basin.

    All this newly discovered biodiversity is also gravely at risk from centuries of exploitation, which is what prompted Raines to write his new book, “Saving America’s Amazon.”