Chernobyl experts: Russia could trigger a nuclear disaster

BBefore Russian troops crossed the border into Ukraine last month, Olena Pareniuk and Kateryna Shavanova were working in Chernobyl, studying microorganisms in the exclusion zone and those living in the radioactive lava in the site’s collapsed No. 4 reactor. Both are currently in Ukraine (Shavanova is in Kyiv while Pareniuk is near Chernivtsi). They wrote together and corresponded with TIME earlier this week about the dangers Russian military activities pose to Chernobyl and the country’s nuclear infrastructure, and the potential consequences of an accident. This interview has been abridged and edited for length and clarity.

What are the current risks at the Chernobyl site?

The urgent need is to rotate the staff of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. The personnel who are still at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant moved in on February 23. The enemy did not leave an opportunity to change personnel, mentally and physically exhausted due to the lack of rotation and constant pressure from the guns people. This can lead to loss of control over the safety of the facility and an inability to respond to internal and external initiating events such as fire, which in turn can lead to serious radiation effects.

Also, the connection with the automated control system and accurate data on the radiation status of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant has been lost. As of March 9, 2022, 11:22 a.m., there was no power supply at the Chernobyl power plant. According to plant management, an additional supply of diesel fuel for diesel power plants was delivered to the site, providing backup power for the spent nuclear fuel storage facilities as well as for the new safe containment facility. Ukrainian workers managed to restore power on Monday, but disruptions recurred on Tuesday. The main risk of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is not radiation, but Russian troops.

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What is the worst case scenario in Chernobyl?

In the event of a total blackout, there is a risk that the security of important systems and equipment will be disabled, in particular: ventilation, heat dissipation, technology and radiation control systems. The ability to remotely control nuclear and radiation safety indicators at storage facilities, the New Safe Confinement Facility and other facilities will be lost. Operators will not be able to control the level and temperature of water in spent fuel storage pools.

In the spent nuclear fuel storage facility there are long-lived radionuclides that, in the event of an accident, can get into the Kakhovka reservoir and further along the Dnipro River into the Black Sea. A huge area would be irradiated for thousands of years. If there is an accident involving an engine or a spent fuel cask, depending on the wind direction, the radioactive cloud will hit Russia, Bulgaria, Greece, Romania and other border countries.

What are the risks for Ukraine’s other nuclear reactors?

The Zaporizhzhya power plant and the city of Energodar are still under the control of Russian military units. The condition of the engines has not changed: two engines are working, two engines are being repaired (#1 and #6), the rest are decommissioned. There are seven nuclear sites in Zaporizhzhya: six nuclear power plants and one spent nuclear fuel storage facility are equivalent to about 20 Chernobyls! This is a huge amount of core material that is now out [Ukraine’s] Control, [and] even by the International Atomic Energy Association. This is a danger not only for Ukraine, but also for neighboring countries. Other Ukrainian nuclear power plants are under Ukrainian control, but the country is at war and the situation is changing very quickly.

What is the likelihood of a major nuclear incident as a result of the fighting?

Chernobyl and Zaporizhia are currently under direct threat. Russian troops continue to grossly violate the requirements of radiation protection, which worsens the radiation situation and contributes to the spread of radioactive contamination outside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. The destruction of Chernobyl’s containment structure in the event of the explosion is very likely and may lead to the release of highly radioactive dust into the environment.

In Zaporizhzhya, the threat depends on the wind direction at the time of the possible accident. During the recent fighting, the wind blew to the southeast, towards Crimea, Melitopol, Rostov, Turkey, Black Sea. And the Black Sea is connected to the Mediterranean Sea, and therefore, in the event of an accident, the radioactive contamination will spread throughout the basin and harm many more countries.

The problem is that the accident at the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant [ZNPP], when it happens can be very different than what happened in Chernobyl. The construction of reactors in the ZNPP is much safer than in Chernobyl, but the Chernobyl accident was addressed by the entire Soviet Union. Now, in the conditions of hostilities, the elimination of the accident will be complicated, and Ukraine simply does not have the resources for this. We will not even discuss the risks of disrupting the integrity of the Zaporizhzhya reactors – because these are six power plants, and each of them can cause as much damage as Chernobyl and pollute the air of the entire northern hemisphere.

It is impossible to predict in any way how events will unfold. The Russians are crazy and they are violating all international agreements. No one with common sense will enter the territory of a nuclear power plant with artillery weapons. For us, as experts who helped to deal with the consequences of the Fukushima accident, such behavior does not fit into our worldview at all. For us, it’s like the river flowing by itself into the sky or the sky turning orange. Everything can happen [with] those who have a diseased brain. This core material is available to anyone and anything can be done with it.

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Justin Scacco

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