Tuesday, October 21, 2014
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The Chernobyl Factor in the Ukraine Crisis

LOS ANGELES – Twenty-eight years after its Chernobyl nuclear plant exploded, Ukraine confronts a nuclear specter of a different kind: the possibility that the country’s reactors could become military targets in the event of a Russian invasion. Speaking at the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague in March, Andrii Deshchytsia, Ukraine’s acting foreign minister, cited the “potential threat to many nuclear facilities” should events deteriorate into open warfare.

Earlier in the month, Ihor Prokopchuk, Ukraine’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, circulated a letter to the organization’s board of governors warning that an invasion could bring a “threat of radiation contamination on the territory of Ukraine and the territory of neighboring states.” In Kyiv, Ukraine’s parliament responded by calling for international monitors to help protect the plants as the cash-strapped government attempts to boost its own efforts.

Are Ukraine’s concerns mere hyperbole – a “malicious slander,” as the Kremlin puts it – or should we take them seriously? For Ukraine’s government, the angst is real. Even Ukrainians born after 1986 understand what a Chernobyl-type disaster brought about by battle could look like.

History offers little guidance as to whether warring countries would avoid damaging nuclear sites. With the exception of the 1990’s Balkan conflict, wars have not been fought against or within countries with nuclear reactors. In the case of the Balkans, Serbian military jets overflew Slovenia’s Krško nuclear power plant in a threatening gesture early in the conflict, while radical Serbian nationalists called for attacks to release the radioactive contents.

Serbia itself later issued a plea to NATO not to bomb its large research reactor in Belgrade. Fortunately, the war ended with both reactors untouched.

While that case provides some assurance that military and political leaders will think twice about attacking nuclear reactors, the sheer scale of Ukraine’s nuclear enterprise calls for far greater global concern. Today, 15 aging plants provide 40% of Ukraine’s electricity. (Ukraine shut several reactors operating adjacent to the damaged Chernobyl reactor years ago.) Concentrated in four locations, Ukraine’s pressurized water reactors differ from the less stable Chernobyl RBMK design, yet still remain capable of releasing radioactive contents should safeguards fail.

Given that Russia, too, suffered serious consequences from the Chernobyl accident, it is to be hoped that the Kremlin would recoil at the idea of bombing the plants intentionally. But warfare is rife with accidents and human error, and such an event involving a nuclear plant could cause a meltdown.

A loss of off-site power, for example, could be an issue of serious concern. Although nuclear plants are copious producers of electricity, they also require electrical power from other sources to operate. Without incoming energy, cooling pumps will cease functioning and the flow of water that carries heat away from the reactor core – required even when the reactor is in shutdown mode – will stop.

To meet that risk, nuclear plants maintain large emergency diesel generators, which can operate for days – until their fuel runs out. The reactor meltdowns at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power station in 2011 demonstrated what happens when primary and emergency operating power are cut.

Such vulnerabilities raise troubling questions in the event of a war. Fighting could disrupt off-site power plants or transmission lines servicing the reactor, and could also prevent diesel fuel from reaching the plant to replenish standby generators. Operators could abandon their posts should violence encroach.

Moreover, combatants could invade nuclear plants and threaten sabotage to release radioactive elements to intimidate their opponents. Others might take refuge there, creating a dangerous standoff. A failure of military command and control or the fog of war could bring plants under bombardment.

Serious radiological contamination could result in each of these scenarios. And, though no one stands to gain from a radioactive release, if war breaks out, we must anticipate the unexpected.

In Ukraine, nuclear emissions could exceed both Chernobyl and Fukushima. Wartime conditions would prevent emergency crews from getting to an affected plant to contain radiological releases should reactor containments fail. And, with government services shut down in the midst of fighting, civilians attempting to escape radioactive contamination would not know what to do or where to go to protect themselves.

Such risks might be one reason for Russian President Vladimir Putin to think twice about ordering a military invasion of Ukraine. But, should war come, combatants must do all they can to keep conflict away from the nuclear sites and the off-site power sources feeding them.

Plant operators should stockpile diesel fuel to keep emergency generators operating. They should perform review and maintenance of generators to ensure that they are set to go. In the event of fighting near reactors, the West should prepare to ferry forces to secure the plants and keep the generators operating; and, in the event of a meltdown, the West should rally both governments to initiate a cease-fire to deal with the disaster. Given the stakes, failure to prepare for the worst is not an option.

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  1. CommentedXanthe Hall

    The danger of nuclear power plants being attacked in any conflict, or even as a terrorist act in an otherwise peaceful region, is highly underestimated when we think about our energy mix. Nuclear power is overrated when considering answers to climate change, as it has carbon emissions further down the nuclear chain. Now we have this added spectre to the situation in Ukraine which is caught between two nuclear armed giants vying for control of Eastern Europe. Ukraine, like Japan, has suffered enough from all things nuclear.

  2. CommentedDavid Donovan

    Moreover, combatants could invade nuclear plants and threaten sabotage to release radioactive elements to intimidate their opponents.

  3. CommentedEdward Ponderer

    I certainly agree with the author, and must agree with the wider application and amplification of the same fear brought out in such well-written detail by Bill Duff. We must realize even this expansive game of booby trap against the backdrop of economic, ecological & climactic, fresh water & waste management crises, and on and on, that face us with there own lynch pins -- many already drawn. To an extent we are already in free fall and like the proverbial unfortunate fellow whose fell off a skyscraper and has reach the half-way mark, should read the warning signs and not imagine "so far, so good."

    We need a parachute, we need a way out, and our individual, self-interested national governments are not doing this--being "selfish to death" as huge, greedy & immature little children. There should be honest round table discussions towards a true world government--as Albert Einstein had called for in the late 1940's and early 1950's knowing that otherwise we would inevitably destroy ourselves. The selfish bureaucratic rot that calls itself the "United" Nations must be replaced by such a true government.

    This UN protects financial powers, strong-men, and military interests, and supports blocs of ideological, national, and religious hatred and dominance against minorities--intra-state and full state (it is always the "biggest guy"in a wider conflict who has power in the UN, whatever the propaganda about concern for the "littlest guy" under the thumb of the little guy made out to be "the monster." Because of this arrangement, selfishness continues to dominate which means that we will not work together truly, which means that we are all doomed.

    A new world government must be based on mutual responsibility. Plain and simple, the discipline to eliminate one's own interests complete from the picture, and honestly understand and present everyone else's. Then in this, are true needs and protection for all guaranteed.

    This is childish idealism! -- Not any more, but it is a matter of a bit of education to our growing integral nature. I wouldn't attempt to force children who are holding their breaths till blue in the face to get what they want--when the time comes, they'll breathe all right--a literal "conspiracy," breathing together, naturally become one organic body as it were. That is, if is still within their physical power to do so. So I would only cajole them to the extent I could with such education, so that they at least keep reality in the back of their minds till then. That way, hopefully, they will not "guarantee" their stubbornness by tying plastic bags around their heads, or chaining a heavy steel ball to their legs and letting it fall into the sea.

  4. CommentedBill Duff

    One 'Worst Case Scenario'

    A commando team successfully weaponizes a Spent Fuel Pool in western France. The Spent Fuel Pool begins to fission, releasing 100X Chernobyl nuclear fallout in a matter of hours. Fluctuating water level conditions set off a chain reaction creating a small, (fizzle yield) atomic explosion. France and Germany would sustain more than 50 million deaths, within weeks. The contamination exclusion zone would depopulate Western Europe, one way or another.

  5. CommentedBill Duff

    One commando team, with ANY political, economic, or personal agenda, can EASILY weaponize a Spent Fuel Pool. The PRIMARY Consequences would be approximately 20X Chernobyl.

    The secondary disaster, from such an act, would REQUIRE abandonment of OTHER nearby nuclear reactors and Spent Fuel Pools. The disaster would cascade across a region. The ensuing multiple site disaster would depopulate a vast region, perhaps a hemisphere.

  6. CommentedBill Duff

    A simple glance at this map, will reveal the global nuclear reactor high risk areas, parabellum, terrorists, natural disasters and operator error. Even higher public health risks (20X) are present from the Spent Fuel Pools associated with these nuclear reactors. The high vulnerability areas are Western Europe, The USA Eastern Seaboard, and Japan.

    http://nuclearinfo.net/twiki/pub/Nuclearpower/CurrentReactors/world_map.png

  7. CommentedBill Duff

    The bureaucrat reluctance to relay bad news, may play a significant factor. Former Japan Prime Minister Naoto Kan, Former USA President Jimmy Carter and Former President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev each complained that they were neither fully, nor accurately briefed on nuclear accident severity. How much of this is politician hyperbole versus reality, is perhaps anyone’s guess.

  8. CommentedBill Duff

    Back Up heat exchangers and contaminated water storage are needed, in the event of loss of ultimate heatsink, as occurred in Fukushima. Several fire engines are needed on site, for portable pumping capability.

    On site storage of Boron, Zeolyte and water filters.

    Predistribution of anti-radiation medications such as KI and Radiogardase, to regional homes, hospitals, schools, and local government offices.

    Install HVAC ‘make-up-air’ HEPA (High Energy Particulate Air) filters in homes, business and public buildings, or cut outside air source off.

  9. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    Mr. Bennett Ramberg fears "a nuclear specter of a different kind" in the Ukraine crisis, as its nuclear power plants could be in grave danger if open war breaks out between Russian and Ukrainian forces. For Ukraine and its neighbours, "the angst is real". Even if plants aren't directly targeted, the collateral damage could have "serious consequences".
    As Mr. Ramberg points out: "Fighting could disrupt off-site power plants or transmission lines servicing the reactor, and could also prevent diesel fuel from reaching the plant to replenish standby generators. Operators could abandon their posts should violence encroach." He warns that without close monitoring, a nuclear power plant could suffer a radioactive emission greater than Chernobyl or Fukushima.
    Many Russians and Ukrainians still have vivid memory of the Chernobyl accident. Ukraine was then only a Soviet republic with limited local powers. Any serious emergency, especially one involving the centralised and highly secretive nuclear industry, was reported straight to Moscow.
    After the explosion on 26 April 1986, Moscow was slow to admit what had happened, even after increased radiation was detected in other countries. There was scepticism and anger about official pronouncements. The lack of information led to exaggerated claims of the number killed by the blast in the immediate area.
    Mikhail Gorbachev had only been in power just over a year and he went on television, admitting the situation was serious. By trying to hide the extent of contamination, he said the worst had been avoided. Few at the time realised he was referring to the danger of a thermo-nuclear explosion. Behind a publicly proclaimed calm there was real panic.
    In Ukraine journalists got little information from state media, except that petrol was nowhere to be found and children were kept indoors, behind closed windows. Locals in the region, who could have seen the reactor on the horizon, saw a red pile smouldering and black cloud billowing skywards.
    After the disaster no bold reforms were made. Twenty eight years later contamination is still a problem, and many victims haven't forgotten the world's worst nuclear accident they suffered. In their vague memory of a gleaming white town, surrounded by woodland, Chernobyl is a zone fenced off, to keep out human habitation.
    So "it is to be hoped that the Kremlin would recoil at the idea of bombing the plants intentionally".

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