Much attention has been paid to the Russian occupation of the Chernobyl area, but in these hours there is growing concern at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and not only, about what could happen to four active nuclear power plants that are providing Ukraine with half of the electricity it needs. Located a short distance from population centers and cities, the plants contain 15 old-generation reactors. The fear is of a nuclear disaster if the plants are damaged by bombing, left unmaintained or disconnected from the power grid needed to cool the reactors.
On Tuesday, Ukraine’s State Inspectorate for Nuclear Regulation informed the IAEA that the plants remained under its control. On Wednesday, however, the first major turn came. Moscow told IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi that its military forces now control the territory around the Zaporizhzhia plant, the largest in Ukraine, housing six of the 15 reactors. Immediately afterwards, the Kiev authorities asked the IAEA “to provide immediate assistance in coordinating activities in relation to the safety of the Chornobyl (Chernobyl) NPP and other nuclear facilities,” without naming Zaporizhzhia specifically. On his part, Grossi repeated the appeal to avoid “any military or other action that could threaten the safety or security of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants.”
His appeal was joined by James Acton, an expert of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. On Friday, Acton wrote that he was more concerned about the four active atomic power plants than about Chernobyl, where the 1986 nuclear disaster occurred. Acton explained that in the event of a military attack or major accident, the 15 reactors in Ukraine would release more radiation than that generated by Chernobyl. Furthermore, the personnel responsible for operating the plants might no longer come to work, and if the plants are disconnected from the power grid, there is a risk of very serious problems. Electricity is needed to prevent the spent nuclear fuel contained in the storage tanks from overheating, otherwise a meltdown or fire could occur. All Ukrainian nuclear units were designed in the former Soviet Union. None of them meet modern international safety standards.
But the most immediate risks at the moment are war-related. In the case of the destruction of a nuclear power plant, explains Dmytro Gumenyuk, a Ukrainian expert, “the consequences would be so much worse than at Fukushima and Chernobyl together.” And there’s more: a radioactive time bomb is already ticking in the Yunkom mine in Donetsk. This is the result of a 1979 underground nuclear test. The explosion created a vitrified capsule of radioactivity that requires the constant pumping of water, which stopped after the territory seceded from Ukraine. The capsule has flooded, and water with low levels of radioactivity has reportedly already contaminated drinking water sources and could reach the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea, going as far as the Mediterranean.