There are Bigger Atomic Worries Than Chernobyl in Ukraine

by BLOOMBERG

RUSSIAN forces have taken control of Ukraine’s defunct nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, prompting online speculation that the site of the 1986 meltdown could again be the source of a dangerous radioactive incident. But experts are more worried about Ukraine’s 15 operational atomic reactors.

Chernobyl remains infamous around the world because of the scale of the deadly accident in 1986 that led to many deaths, and subsequent Soviet attempts to cover up the damage and impact. Today the decommissioned plant is at the heart of a vast exclusion zone and a protective sarcophagus encloses the worst-hit of the four reactors.

Residual radiation from the plant will remain dangerous for centuries. But experts say the threat of it being released from forest fires wafting plumes of irradiated material into the atmosphere is potentially just as great as the risks posed by the current conflict.

Chernobyl sits on a strategic route used by Russian forces moving south from Belarus to the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. Russian forces there “can’t cause a disaster even if using the strongest possible explosives,” wrote Dana Drabova, the head of the Czech Republic’s state office for nuclear safety.

Any contamination would only spread some 30 kilometers (18.6 miles), well within the vast 2,600 square kilometer exclusion zone created around the decommissioned reactors, she said.

By contrast, 15 other nuclear reactors are still online at four different power plants scattered around the country.

The far greater risk is the military activities that could disrupt those power-generating reactors in the middle of a war. Some are rickety old Soviet models that wouldn’t be permitted to operate in the European Union for safety reasons.

They are stuffed with fresh nuclear fuel that has the potential to turn a regional conflagration into a continental nightmare if a stray rocket, shell or act of sabotage created a safety incident.

James Acton, a nuclear analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in a report on Thursday that attacks on Ukraine’s electricity infrastructure could have grave nuclear safety consequences. Reactors require steady supplies of electricity and water, both of which could be put at risk by military action. And then there is the human factor.

“For Ukrainian nuclear power plant staff, merely traveling to work may be a dangerous act — making it potentially challenging to ensure the reactor can be operated safely,” Acton said in a note. “In the event of an accident, backup personnel, such as firefighters, may not be able to reach the plant — not least because they could be involved in civilian relief efforts.

Monitors at the International Atomic Energy Agency say they’re gravely concerned by the situation and remain in contact with Ukrainian nuclear-safety regulators. “The IAEA is closely monitoring developments in Ukraine with a special focus on the safety and security of its nuclear power plants,” IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said.

Radiation readings at Chernobyl are currently low and within normal ranges, agency monitors reported on Friday. Reports of higher radiation measurements that circulated online earlier in the day “may have been caused by heavy military vehicles stirring up soil still contaminated from the 1986 accident,” the IAEA said in a statement.