Nuclear and the Russia-Ukraine Conflict

Ridah Arshad

After years of rising tensions between the two countries, largely fueled by Russia’s fear and apprehension towards Ukraine’s growth and independence, the Russian government launched their invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Concerns about a potential conflict began after Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, their support of violent secessionists in eastern Ukraine, and the Budapest Memorandum of 2014. Along with the apparent humanitarian, economic and political implications, an additional concern lies within the country’s abundance of nuclear power plants.

Ukraine is home to the site of the Chernobyl disaster. In 1986, workers were testing the operating time of the reactor’s coolant pumps using electric power from the reactor’s turbine generators. They decided to perform the test with the reactor still running, resulting in less coolant flow to the core. This caused rapid boiling, fuel disintegration, steam explosions, and the dislodging of the reactor cover. This exposed the nuclear core and released radioactive material into the atmosphere. The nearby habitants were not evacuated until 36 hours after the incident. Uranium radiation has caused long lasting effects such as thyroid cancer, leukemia, radiation burn injuries, along with the degradation of nearly a thousand acres in the nearby pine forest.

Up until a few months prior, the exclusion zone around the reactor had made a significant ecological recovery and was no longer a ruinous site of nuclear nightmare. The wildlife in the area had returned, which was apparent through the plethora of amphibians, Eurasian lynx, and black storks and the spotting of the first European bison in the region in over 300 years. Before 2016, the nuclear reactor was covered with the decaying sarcophagus; a structure of jagged metal and concrete rectangular prisms with bore holes to allow observation of the enclosed contaminated debris and soil. However after extensive degradation over the years, it was replaced by the arch-shaped New Safe Confinement; a much safer dome which classifies as a nuclear entombment device.

Unfortunately, the Russian invasion quickly intervened with the ecological and infrastructural development of the surrounding area, turning it into a war zone. Aside from obvious threats such as potential stray missile strikes that could misfire in the region of the plant, other concerns such as driving through the Red Forest, one of the most radioactive parts of the zone, and a loss of maintenance of the plant resulting in power outages and other failures, are equally concerning outcomes.

The biggest issue lies in the difficulty of running the plant, even if it remains only a nuclear waste storage facility, without proper safety procedures and staffing amidst an ongoing conflict. A missile explosion near the plant or cyberattack on the electricity grid can trigger power outages, and the facility already lost power once earlier in the conflict. Although backup diesel generators exist, they only contain enough fuel to power the plant for two days after which point the reactor’s cooling system would shut down. Without adequate cooling, the heat produced by the reactor would cause the temperature to rise uncontrollably. Components would begin to melt and water evaporation would expose the fuel rods, leading to radioactive gas emission. In addition to power usage for the operation of the plant itself, the New Safe Confinement structure has ventilation systems within it that requires electricity to avoid degrading the nuclear fuel within it.

The concern for Chernobyl extends to the 15 other operational nuclear reactors that are scattered at 4 different power plants around the country, which supply about half of the country’s power. However, these reactors are actually power generating; full of fresh nuclear fuel that could be disastrous if an accidental missile or shell were to strike them. In the case of these reactors, water supply and electricity remain an issue, along with operating staff not being able to reach the facilities due to military intervention and destruction in their respective cities.

As the conflict stretches out, more and more innocent civilians are being affected and forced to flee. Whether the nuclear power plants will be weaponized or contribute to the damages of war remains yet to be seen. This topic raises important questions about how we can design safer nuclear reactors.