Australian news, and some related international items

Why nuclear risk from war in Ukraine isn’t missiles but accidental hits on reactors

“In case of the total destruction of the power plant, I think the consequences would be so much worse than at Fukushima and Chernobyl together,” Mr Gumenyuk said. “If speaking about consequences of this war situation, Europe will be totally contaminated.”

Why nuclear risk from war in Ukraine isn’t missiles but accidental hits on reactors, Kyiv safety expert warns, By Isabella Bengoechea   i ,   23 Feb 22

  Kyiv nuclear safety expert Dmytro Gumenyuk told i while a direct attack is unlikely, military invasion raises the risk of possible accidental hits from missiles or artillery   

 Ukraine’s nuclear power plants would pose a risk of radioactive pollution in Europe if caught in the crossfire of a Russian invasion, a Kyiv safety expert has told i.

The chance of a direct military attack on such facilities would be highly unlikely but a lack of high-precision weapons in the occupied Donbas suggests there could be an increased chance of sensitive facilities being hit accidentally.

If this happens, radiation could contaminate air, soil and waterways, affecting not only Ukraine but also Russia and much of Europe, according to Dmytro Gumenyuk, head of safety analysis at the State Scientific and Technical Centre for Nuclear and Radiation Safety, a body within the state nuclear inspectorate.

Ukraine has 15 nuclear reactors in four power plants, which provide 52 per cent of the country’s electricity: Khelnitsky and Rivne in the northwest, and Zaporizhzhia and the South Ukrainian plants in the west and south respectively.

Some facilities including a nuclear waste storage site in the exclusion zone at Chernobyl – where in 1986 catastrophic failure at the power plant resulted in the worst nuclear disaster in history – lie close to the country’s borders, where Russia has amassed nearly 200,000 troops.

The plant at Zaporizhzhia is only about 150 miles from the front line in Donetsk, while the South Ukrainian plant is about another 160 miles further west.

While a direct attack is unlikely, military invasion raises the risk of possible accidental hits from missiles or artillery. On Tuesday the thermal power station at Shchastya, near the conflict line in Luhansk, caught fire amid shelling, leaving 40,000 residents without electricity.

Mr Gumenyuk said: “Our NPP [nuclear power plant] wasn’t designed for military protection. Of course it wasn’t designed against tanks, bombs, missiles and so on.

“In case of a military attack it is not a long time for getting from Dontesk to Zaporizhzhia NPP, and of course taking into account the small distances from the Russian Federation, we could suppose that our power plants are not fully protected from military attack from our neighbour.”

A direct attack by Russia is unlikely. Lada Roslycky, founder of the Ukraine-based Black Trident defence and security group, said: “From a military perspective and a defence perspective it would be an idiotic action.”

However, she pointed out the separatists’ lack of high-precision weapons in conflict in the occupied Donbas does raise the chance of sensitive facilities being hit accidentally.

She also suggested that this could be part of a Russian strategy of fomenting uncertainty through psychological warfare, by holding out the threat of attacking such facilities. “I really don’t think they would do it [attack nuclear facilities] but it’s possible … it’s such a wonderful, brilliant instrument,” she said.

The Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS) said it is “right to be concerned about Ukraine’s 15 ageing Soviet-design nuclear reactors”.

“The three reactors at the South Ukraine Nuclear Power Plant and the six reactors at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant are the two sites most likely to be affected by a Russian invasion,” the observatory added.

The VVER 1000 pressurised water reactors at Zaporizhzhia each contain 163 assemblies – or structured groups of fuel rods. Each assembly contains about 500kg of uranium dioxide, making the total fuel inside one reactor about 80 tonnes.

After the 2011 nuclear disaster at Fukushima in Japan, Ukrainian nuclear authorities implemented extra safety measures to make their reactors safer, and protect against accidents such as fires and flooding.

However, Mr Gumenyuk warned that were the plant to be attacked, in the worst-case scenario, the consequences would be devastating.

“In case of the total destruction of the power plant, I think the consequences would be so much worse than at Fukushima and Chernobyl together,” Mr Gumenyuk said. “If speaking about consequences of this war situation, Europe will be totally contaminated.”

Soon after the disaster, radioactive rain began falling across northern Britain. In Cumbria detectors showed background radiation 200 times higher than normal. In Scotland two months later it was 4,000 times. Sheep in North Wales, Cumbria, and Scotland were found to have increased levels of caesium-137, prompting temporary restrictions on meat sales for 7,000 farms.

A nuclear disaster at Zaporizhzhia would contaminate the water, entering the Dneiper River and travelling down into the Sea of Azov, the Black Sea and then out into the Mediterranean.

In the event of a meltdown, radiation could contaminate the air where, depending on weather conditions, it could spread across Europe, as happened after the Chernobyl accident, when radiation spread as far as Sweden and the UK.

“But this is if all the units are totally destroyed,” said Mr Gumenyuk. “We do our best to prevent this situation. I hope in most cases our power units would survive even in single hits. Our nuclear reactors have containment to protect against the different impacts, including an air crash for example.”

Chernobyl’s nuclear waste

Ukraine’s nuclear waste storage facilities, including in the exclusion zone at Chernobyl, 70 miles south of the Belarussian border, also pose a radiation risk.

Last year Energoatom, the state nuclear operator, announced that Ukraine’s new Central Spent Fuel Storage Facility, in the exclusion zone at Chernobyl, was almost ready to begin operating. Spent fuel will be transferred to the new facility from where it is currently stored at power plants.

At present Russia has about 30,000 troops stationed in Belarus, apparently for joint military exercises, which are armed with short-range missiles, rocket launchers and Su-35 fighters. Leaders including Boris Johnson have suggested that Russia is planning at attack from Belarus, “coming down from the north, coming down from Belarus, and encircling Kyiv itself”. The route could take Russian troops through the exclusion zone.

According to CEOBS: “Decommissioning of the [Chernobyl] site and the packaging of waste is ongoing and will continue for decades. The site is under constant management and monitoring and the disruption caused by a conflict would impact the ongoing work to reduce the risks it poses. It seems likely that foreign companies would withdraw staff in the event of an invasion, impacting activities at the site.”

There are 22,000 assemblies of spent nuclear fuel at the storage site, kept in special casks to protect them.

However, Mr Gumenyuk pointed out that these were not protected against military firepower: “In case of the destruction of these casks, radioactive materials could be released and transferred to Ukraine and other European territories. This is a very dangerous situation.”

While some experts say any disruption to the site would be localised, Mr Gumenyuk said: “I disagree, the number of the fuel assemblies is very big and if all the casks were destroyed it would not only be the problem of Ukraine, maybe not all Europe, but many countries.”

Cyberattacks are another possibility. Last week Ukrainian government websites and banks were shut down by a wave of distributed denial of service attacks, thought to have been carried out by Russian hackers.

In 2015 the country’s energy sector was attacked by the BlackEnergy computer virus that caused a blackout of 800,000 households across 103 towns.

The next year, on the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, Ukraine’s then-President Poroshenko said: “If the BlackEnergy virus was used for attacks on our power distributors, there is no guarantee that such technology will not threaten our nuclear plants”.

“Chernobyl is already volatile,” said Ms Roslycky. “Cyberattacks against Chernobyl call for attention… whether attacking kinetically or through cyber, when that happens this is something that would threaten global security.”

Accident, terrorism or sabotage

Direct attacks on the plants at Zaporizhzhia and South Ukraine are also unlikely, not least because Russia is not far from the power plants, and any radioactive contamination would affect Russia as well as Ukraine.

However, the possibility of an accident, terrorism or sabotage is somewhat higher. According to the Nuclear Security Index for 2020, Ukraine scores highly on global norms for nuclear materials security and implementing international commitments, with 94 and 78 out of 100 respectively.

However, under ‘risk environment’, which considers factors including political stability, effective governance, pervasiveness of corruption, and illicit activities by non-state actors, Ukraine scores 14.

A 2016 report by the EU Non-Proliferation Consortium drew attention to the illicit trafficking of radioactive materials in the DPR, LPR and unrecognised Transnistria in Moldova. “The armed conflict in eastern Ukraine and its related threats are dramatically influencing the nuclear security conditions in the country,” it said.

“Political and social instability amplifies the motivation of criminal or terrorist groups or organisations for illegal business related to the distribution of radioactive materials that are out of regulatory control.”

The danger of these armed insurgencies was highlighted most dramatically in 2014 when Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over Donetsk in eastern Ukraine by pro-Russian separatists, killing all 298 on board. The Dutch-led investigation into the incident concluded that the plane was shot down with a Buk missile supplied by the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade of the Russian Federation. Those responsible may have believed they were shooting down a Ukrainian military aircraft………………………………………….


February 24, 2022 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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