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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.