The Chernobyl nuclear power plant (NPP) – the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster –was occupied by Russian forces on the first day of their invasion of Ukraine. The Zaporizhzhia NPP – Europe’s largest NPP – was taken on 4 March. The continuing war poses the risk that a nuclear power plant event eclipsing the April 1986 disaster could ensue

All Chernobyl facilities, including storage facilities for highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel, came under Russian military control after a fierce battle. By 10 March, Ukrainian officials warned that Russia would go as far as to plot a “man-made catastrophe” at the power station and then shift the blame on Ukraine in a false flag operation.

The invading army had the advantage of a vast unpopulated area linked by an uninterrupted highway from Belarus to Kyiv. The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone lies close to Ukraine’s northern border with Russia’s ally Belarus – where a puppet government runs an authoritarian state – and spreads across the most direct route between that country and the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, which is under heavy bombardment as resistance against the Russians persists.

Power cuts
On 14 March, 18 days following the Russian invasion on 24 February, a high-voltage power line at Chernobyl 130 km north of Kyiv was reported by Ukraine’s nuclear agency to have been damaged for a second time by Russian forces.

A second incident in which the power line was damaged occurred just one day after the beleaguered nation’s Energy Minister, Herman Halushchenko, stated that power had been restored following a Russian attack the previous week.

During that onslaught the site was disconnected from the country’s electricity grid. The nuclear agency emphasised that reliable power supply to the Chernobyl NPP is critical to prevent any repetition of the April 1986 disaster.

Reduction and cessation of power to the plant from Russian interference will jeopardise its vital cooling systems that maintain stability in the 20,000 spent nuclear fuel rods kept on the site.

Impact of the invasion
Monitoring stations across the Chernobyl zone recorded dramatic rises in radiation occurred along main highways and near the reactor site after Russian forces reached the site at 21.00 hrs on 24 February. The Ukrainian authorities are not informed of radiation levels at the NPP.

The rise in levels was found to be from dust stirred up by invading vehicles and not from damage to containment facilities. However, anyone who inhaled some of it – Russian soldiers or Ukrainian power plant workers held hostage – will have absorbed any or all of the radionuclides listed above, which even at low levels are carcinogenic, toxic, or both.

The sensor network abruptly stopped recording radiation levels the next day and only restarted on 1 March.

The NPP holds 5.3 million pounds (2.4 million kg) of radioactive spent nuclear fuel. Damage to a spent fuel pond could cause the water to leak or boil off, leading to overheating of the rods and consequent fire.

A direct hit on the power plant’s spent fuel pools or dry cask storage could release far more radioactive material than the 1986 meltdown. Russian artillery bombardment has increased since the invading forces were resisted in many areas.

Even a powered down reactor still loaded with fuel poses a danger. The shut down reactor core must be actively cooled, which requires power off the grid to keep water circulating around it – preferably uninterrupted. The Russian cutting of power could repeat a Fukushima scenario, when power ceased following the earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011 -resulting in the meltdown of three reactors.

Exhausted workers
After working flat out on site for three weeks trying to maintain power supply amid constant attacks, on 13 March more than 100 exhausted workers for the Ukrainian utility company Ukrenergo had to cease repairs and maintenance of safety-related equipment at the plant. Workers continued their duties under very poor conditions with limited food and medical supplies. On 22 March the remaining members of the one shift of technical staff were finally relieved, with most of the Ukrainian guards still on duty.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said, “Our soldiers are giving their lives so that the tragedy of 1986 does not happen again.” Interior Ministry adviser Anton Herashchenko added: “If as a result of the occupiers’ artillery strikes the nuclear waste storage facility is destroyed, the radioactive dust may cover the territories of Ukraine, Belarus and the EU countries.”

Capture of Zaporizhzhia
Ukraine depends on half of its energy supply from its 15 operating nuclear reactors at four power plant sites. The biggest, Zaporizhzhia in southeast Ukraine, was taken by Russian troops on 4 March and five of its six reactors were shut down.

When Russian forces attacked the NPP, IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi reported that a site building had taken a missile hit. A consequential fire was put out without damage to the reactors. Ukraine also had no control over what was happening at the occupied plant, where 400 Russian troops are stationed.

According to Michael Bluck, director of the Centre for Nuclear Engineering, Imperial College London, the main danger would come from Russian forces attempting to breach the containment structure, but that catastrophic damage is unlikely from an accidental hit.

However, the machinery that provides active cooling – pumps, heat exchangers and back-up diesel generators – lie outside the reinforced containment structure and may also become targets.

Chernobyl and beyond
The effects of the Chernobyl disaster will take generations to subside. The explosion released 400 times more radiation into the atmosphere than the Hiroshima bomb. Isotopes of iodine, strontium, cesium and other radioisotopes were spread and dumped over large areas of Ukraine, Belarus, the Russian Federation and in other European countries. The accident caused serious social, economic and psychological disruption in the lives of thousands in the Northern Hemisphere.

If the confinement facilities at Chernobyl or other reactors across Ukraine are severely damaged in the escalating war with Russia, we may witness an environmental catastrophe that could eclipse Chernobyl 1986.

The Chernobyl reactor 4 building in 2006 shows the sarcophagus built over the main facility at the end of 1986 and elements of the maximum-security perimeter.
©Wikimedia/Carl Montgomery