It took just hours for the Russian invasion in Ukraine to pose a nuclear threat over Europe. However, the Chernobyl power station may not be as dangerous as the forest around it or the 15 nuclear reactors that are still operating in Ukraine.
On Thursday morning, Ukrainian officials reported a fierce fight in the exclusion zone around the dead Chernobyl nuclear power plant, which in 1986 blanketed parts of Europe with radioactive fallout after a meltdown that remains the worst nuclear accident in history.
“Our defenders are giving their lives so that the tragedy of 1986 will not be repeated,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reported on Twitter. “This is a declaration of war against the whole of Europe.”
The Russian attack “may cause another ecological disaster,” the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry reported. Chernobyl “can happen again in 2022.”
On Thursday afternoon, Ukraine reported Russian troops had taken control of the facility and detained the staff responsible for cleanup and maintenance. This alarming development intensified the fear expressed by world leaders already shaken by the Russian invasion.
“We’re outraged by credible reports that Russian soldiers are currently holding the staff of the Chernobyl facility hostage,” Jen Psaki, White House Press secretary, said this at a news conference. “This unlawful and dangerous hostage-taking, which could upend the routine civil service efforts required to maintain and protect the nuclear waste facilities, is obviously incredibly alarming and gravely concerning. We condemn it and request their release.”
The 1986 explosion of Chernobyl’s Reactor 4 killed two first responders, and 28 more died from radiation poisoning in the following weeks. The radioactive fallout may have caused thyroid cancer in some 5,000 people in the region, at most 15 of which were fatal, as well as thousands of premature deaths. The death toll from this disaster is estimated at 1 million.
The nuclear fuel and the contaminated wreckage from the plant will be dangerous for many centuries. It needs constant maintenance. Russian forces continued to disrupt the safety, maintenance, and cleanup of the site on Friday, according to reports. “For the second day, the occupiers have been detaining the personnel of the [Chernobyl] NPP station, not allowing them to rotate as required by technical safety rules,” Ukraine’s Ministry of Energy reported in a statement.
The radiation levels have increased in the vicinity of the nuclear facility since the Russian occupation, but the rises have been below the doses considered to be harmful to human health.
Rather than a release of material from the containment facility holding the reactor that melted down—the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that there have been no destruction or casualties at the facility—most experts believed that the increase was due to radioactive dust and soils disturbed by tanks and other vehicles during the siege.
“It’s not surprising given that hundreds of military vehicles are passing through the area stirring up dust,” said Timothy Mousseau, a biology professor at the University of South Carolina who studies the effects of radiation on organisms in Chernobyl.
The ability of the dust surrounding Chernobyl’s to spread radiation is a bigger threat than that, and can be ignited by violent conflict.
“The larger danger is the potential for forest fires in the area to put out radioactive smoke,” Mousseau said.
Once known as the “Red Forest” for the rusty color the pines took after being killed off by radiation from the meltdown, the woodlands around Chernobyl have experienced an increase in wildfire in recent years.
Radioactivity from the disaster also caused the death of bacteria, fungi, and invertebrates. They would have helped to destroy trees, needles, leaves, and slow down the process of forest vegetation decomposition by up to 40%.
After the fallout from the forest fell to the ground, needles were buried and trees that had been killed were bulldozed. The soil still holds more than 90 per cent of radionuclides. The radionuclides that caused the disaster are still being absorbed by the trees today as they grow in soils that contain carcinogenic radionuclides such as cesium-137.
With most of the population removed and commercial activities forbidden in the vast exclusion zone—an area about the size of Luxembourg secured around the site of the disaster—woody fuels for wildfires have accumulated for decades. Trees now cover twice the land they did before the disaster. A large invading army could also constrain the resources of firefighters and firefighters assigned to the Red Forest, just as it did for the Chernobyl staff.
“It’s a tinderbox,” Mousseau said. “With nobody to suppress fires there, it wouldn’t be difficult for a fire to spread over the whole area.”
A large, hot fire in Red Forest could produce enough smoke and ash to carry hundreds or thousands of miles. Research in 2011 by Ukrainian forestry professor Sergiy Zibtsev and Chad Oliver, who was then director of Yale’s Global Institute of Sustainable Forestry, estimated that a fire that fully consumed the forest would blanket Kyiv with radioactive smoke, increasing the risk of cancer for its residents. Produce grown up to 90 miles away from the fire would be so contaminated that it couldn’t be safely eaten and the stigma of radiation on one of Europe’s breadbaskets would keep other countries from importing even uncontaminated Ukrainian foods.
“It is getting drier in this area due to climate change,” Mosseau said. “We are seeing an increase in wildfires. Some of the largest fires there have occurred in the last few years.”
He said that the area received less moisture this winter than usual. As in most of the rest, the fire season has expanded in the area, with hundreds of firefighters being called to fight fires in the forest early in the spring. In April 2020, a fire erupted on more than 150,000 acres of forest. This was the largest fire since the nuclear catastrophe, which engulfed Kyiv with smoke. Norway, located 2,000 miles away from the fires detected an increase in the levels of cesium in their air.
As to why Russia would prioritize capturing Chernobyl, military analysts note that it’s along the shortest route from the territory of its ally, Belarus, to Kyiv and on a path that avoids the region’s marshes, where vehicles could be mired in mud. Chernobyl lies 67 miles north-east of Kyiv.
The wreckage of Reactor 4 was covered with a concrete “sarcophagus” in 1986, and then with a steel and concrete structure called the New Safe Confinement, which was engineered to withstand a tornado, in 2016. Russia, which has a lot of nuclear fuel and weapons and is close enough that an incident there could pose a threat to Moscow, doesn’t have any strategic reason to breach these containment structures in order to access the 200 tonnes of radioactive fuel still buried deep within them.
Mousseau points out another reason Chernobyl might be useful to an army that invades Ukraine.
“The major power grid and switching station for that whole region is there,” he said. “All these grids fed into this enormous nuclear power station. By having control of those, they have control over the electricity supply.”
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Russia can turn off the power, which can be a major advantage in their efforts subdue Kyiv. However it also points out a larger nuclear threat in the Ukrainian war.
Ukraine has 15 active nuclear reactors at its four electricity plants. These reactors, many of them old Soviet designs, require a steady supply electricity and water to ensure their safety and prevent them from melting.
A missile from the wrong direction could strike one of these reactors, causing a nuclear crisis. But any military operation that interrupted the power supply to one of them for longer than the facilities’ backup generators could keep the plant running safely has the potential to create another Chernobyl.
Source: Inside Climate News