Russian forces took Chernobyl. These are the risks.
On February 24, after launching its long-running, unprovoked but prepared invasion of Ukraine, Russian forces captured the disused Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Chernobyl’s Reactor 4 melted down in 1986, a disaster of design and mismanagement that killed 31 people immediately afterward and sent plumes of radioactive fallout across Europe, potentially causing thousands more premature deaths. Chernobyl ceased to be an active site of electricity generation in 2000. But its occupation, even as a disused and confined facility, offers insight into nuclear power in Ukraine, the war and the potential risks involved fighting around the old infrastructure.
The occupation of Chernobyl took place during Russia’s dramatic and violent invasion of Ukraine. On Thursday afternoon, President Joe Biden addressed the nation about the events. “Just as the United Nations Security Council was meeting to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty, to prevent invasion, Putin declared war,” Biden said. “Within moments, missile strikes began falling on historic towns across Ukraine; then came the air raids, followed by incoming tanks and troops.
That Russian troops captured Chernobyl is only part of a larger war. Here’s what you need to know.
Why did Russia capture the Chernobyl site?
Russia’s capture of Chernobyl has less to do with specific radioactive ambitions than with mere geography. Pripyat, the evacuated ghost town that is home to Chernobyl, lies along a direct highway to the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. It is also surrounded by marshes. Maintaining a clear and reliable road on the west side of the river allows Russia to get its tanks, armored vehicles and artillery into position, without being swallowed up or stuck in most of the swamps.
While Russian helicopters and other aircraft rush to secure airports or at least deny their use to the Ukrainian military, slower ground forces fly and maintain secure routes between difficult terrain. Chernobyl, despite its infamy, happens to be a safer staging area, and along a major road.
At the same time, Russian forces reportedly took hostages there.
What does the Chernobyl site contain?
The Soviet Union completed construction of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine in 1977. The 1986 disaster stemmed from a mismanaged safety test, which went so badly it triggered a meltdown and explosions catastrophic. In December 1986, a steel and concrete “sarcophagus” was built over the ruins of Reactor 4, containing the material inside but porous enough to allow rainwater to enter.
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The site’s other three reactors have continued to operate for years, the last having been shut down in December 2000. The three unexploded reactors are being gradually dismantled, a process that will take decades.
Today, Reactor 4 sits beneath a massive steel and concrete structure called New Safe Confinement, which was completed in 2016. As of 2018, around 200 tons of radioactive fuel remained inside the wreckage of the reactor 4 under this structure.
The New Safe Confinement is designed to withstand a tornado. This secures the content against natural disasters, although the war is full of unnatural disasters. Explosions, from bombs that deliberately or inadvertently hit containment, could eventually break containment, although there is little military purpose in doing so.
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This is because real radioactive material has been decaying for a long time. Much of this material melted and mixed in the initial disaster, a man-made lava of uranium, sand, graphite and zirconium, which then solidified. What could be airborne with enough targeted explosive force is the frozen detritus of two isotopes, cesium-137 and strontium-90.
“The scattered material has had over thirty years to decay, so the only remaining hazardous radionuclides are Cs-137 and Sr-90,” tweeted Cheryl Rofer, a retired nuclear scientist who worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory. “Explosions would disperse them further, making them less dangerous.”
What remains of cesium-137 and strontium-90 at the site exists as gunk attached to other debris. Exposure to large amounts of cesium-137 can cause burns, radiation sickness and death. Strontium-90 is most harmful when ingested, where it can contribute to bone cancers in individuals. Ingestion should be avoided, but Cancers operate on a time scale far removed from that of military occupations, making the targeted release of Strontium-90 a poor choice of weapon as well. Scattering either through an explosive would eject some into the air, but it would also spread the grime, lowering the concentrations encountered by any person.
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In a war where both sides have limited weapons and an abundance of targets, expending any ammo effort to destroy a contained disaster from decades ago probably confers no advantage.
“I can’t imagine how it would be in Russia’s interest to allow facilities at Chernobyl to be damaged,” Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists told The Associated Press.
Lyman added that he was most concerned about the disruption to the site’s power supply, where cooling pumps are used to maintain calm conditions inside the spent fuel storage tanks, according to the AP.
What other nuclear risks are there with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?
Ukraine has 15 other nuclear reactors, spread over four sites. These sites have modern security protocols in place. Six of these reactors are located at two sites deep in western Ukraine, near Rivne and Khmelnitsky. The site in southern Ukraine, near Mykolaiv, houses three reactors and is on the west side of the Dnieper River. The Zaporizhzhya site houses six reactors and sits between Russia’s annexed Crimea and the declared breakaway republics of eastern Ukraine.
Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi of the International Atomic Energy Agency said this morning that the IAEA “is following the situation in Ukraine with deep concern and calls for maximum restraint to avoid any action that could endanger the nuclear facilities in the country”.
In the United States, nuclear reactors are built to withstand the impact of a jet plane hitting the building. The IAEA notes that “penetration (even relatively small) of reinforced concrete requires multiple hits from high-velocity artillery shells or specially designed ‘bunker-busting’ ammunition, which would make the specific destruction of a nuclear power plant a planned and deliberate act.
The far greater nuclear risk in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the main reason the US and other NATO allies did not intervene, is that Russia has a vast nuclear arsenal. NATO members France, the United Kingdom and the United States also possess nuclear arsenals, with the United States possessing by far the most nuclear weapons of any country except Russia.