Is Ukraine on the verge of a nuclear disaster?

Ukraine's nuclear power plant
Ukraine's nuclear power plant/courtesy

The Chernobyl nuclear facility, the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident, was taken over by Russian troops on the first day of their three-week invasion of Ukraine.

A little more than a week later, the Russian army attacked and overran Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, Zaporizhzhia.

A fire broke out after the shelling of some of its facilities, but no increase in radiation was reported. Meanwhile, early reports of a radiation spike near the Belarusian border at Chernobyl were attributed to heavy military equipment stirring up contaminated soil near the site.

The attacks sparked widespread panic. The International Atomic Energy Agency expressed “grave concern” about the security of Ukraine’s nuclear sites, warning that the two captured sites had violated the fundamental principles of safely operating such facilities. People across Europe with memories of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster rushed to buy iodine tablets to take in case of radiation exposure as President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned of a looming nuclear disaster.

IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi traveled to Antalya, Turkey, on March 10 to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba. Grossi proposed a “framework to ensure the safety and security of Ukraine’s nuclear facilities,” but it was unclear whether the two sides agreed to it.

While nuclear experts interviewed by Al Jazeera say a disaster on the scale of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster is unlikely, they warn that the fighting in Ukraine poses a threat to the country’s nuclear sites.

‘Nuclear facilities are in grave danger.’

Ukraine is the world’s seventh-largest producer of nuclear energy, thanks to its well-developed nuclear energy infrastructure. It produces 55 percent of its electricity from four nuclear power plants, which generate 55 percent of the total.

Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, the fifth, had its last operational reactor shut down in 2000. However, because a number of safety systems are still in place and spent fuel is still stored at the site, the decommissioned plant requires daily maintenance.

A group of about 211 personnel and guards who were on duty when the plant was taken over on February 24 have been unable to leave and be replaced, potentially jeopardizing their ability to operate the facility safely.

On March 9, the plant’s electricity was cut off, forcing employees to rely on diesel generators until engineers reconnected the facility to the power grid on March 14. The IAEA also reported on March 9 that it had lost contact with Chernobyl’s nuclear material monitoring safeguard systems.

The nuclear watchdog is also concerned about the conditions at the Zaporizhzhia plant in Ukraine’s south, where the staff is unable to rotate as required by safety procedures. Its direct connection to the site’s observation systems was also cut off, though it claimed it had been able to receive data in recent days. It also stated that Russian troops were detonating unexploded munitions discovered at the shelling site on March 4.

The lack of a major incident at the two captured sites, according to Nikolai Sokov, a senior fellow at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, shows that both sides have been cautious – but a nuclear incident cannot be ruled out.

“Nuclear power plants are built for peacetime use. This is the first time we’ve seen major fighting in a country with so many. “This is a one-of-a-kind situation for which no one was prepared,” he said.

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Is there a chance of a nuclear disaster?

Despite the fact that nuclear power plants are built to strict safety standards to avoid disasters, there are still a number of flaws.

There are no working reactors at Chernobyl, and the one that exploded in 1986 has been buried in a concrete sarcophagus. The site, however, continues to pose a threat to the immediate environment.

According to Allison M Macfarlane, professor and director of the University of British Columbia’s School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, if the spent fuel storage facility is damaged or operated improperly due to staff fatigue, lack of electricity, or a malfunctioning cooling system, radioactive material could be released.

According to Macfarlane, such an incident would have a more localized impact and would not spread radiation to vast areas near Ukraine as the 1986 disaster did.

Heavy fighting during the war, on the other hand, could result in a much more serious incident at the four nuclear power plants that are currently operational.

The current nuclear reactors in Ukraine are built with a strong concrete and steel structure that is designed to contain radiation and withstand external pressure. The reactors’ covers can withstand an explosion caused by a shell, according to Georgi Kaschiev, a nuclear physicist and former head of the Bulgarian Committee for the Peaceful Use of Atomic Energy.

“The main threat is that rocket bombardment of nuclear sites could damage vital systems,” he said. These could be the plant’s power supply or equipment that assists with reactor operation. Kaschiev warned that if a plant’s cooling systems fail, it could have serious consequences.

Even if the Russian military leadership understands the risks and takes precautions, he believes that troops on the ground could still engage in dangerous military activities that could damage nuclear facilities, similar to how forces struck a civilian plane over a part of eastern Ukraine held by pro-Russian separatists in July 2014, using a Russian-made surface-to-air missile, according to investigators and prosecutors.

Both Kaschiev and Sokov believe that a nuclear disaster on the scale of Chernobyl, which impacted most of Europe, is highly unlikely at Ukraine’s operational nuclear plants. The extent of the fallout, according to Kashchiev, will be determined by the ability of local staff and authorities to implement radiation-safety procedures.

Nothing can be ruled out in war, according to Macfarlane, and she expects Russia to continue targeting Ukraine’s nuclear sites.

“Because these facilities provide more than half of Ukraine’s electricity, I imagine they are very attractive targets for the Russians who want to control the electricity,” she said.

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