“The situation in Ukraine remains very serious due to Russia’s actions at and near Ukraine’s nuclear power plants, especially at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear facility. We must continue to press for an end to the war.”
By Dr Ian Fairlie, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND)
Back in March of this year, when the Russian invasion of Ukraine was in its early stages, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) warned of the serious dangers posed specifically by Russia’s shelling and occupation of nuclear power stations. Sadly, in recent months, these dangers have increased, especially at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant – the largest in Europe.
Russian shells have repeatedly cut power lines supplying electricity to the plant, threatening the overheating of the fuel elements inside the reactors which need to be constantly cooled.
A recent article in the US Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (famous for its clock getting closer to midnight) explains that a nuclear accident – in one or more of Zaporizhzhia’s six reactors or its spent fuel storage pools – could trigger a massive release of radioactive substances affecting countries well beyond Ukraine.
The article compares nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors in terms of their fission product production. A 20-kiloton weapon (similar to that at Hiroshima) produces the same amount of radioactive fission products as a 1000 MW nuclear reactor (like those at Zaporizhzhia) operating for one day. For example, a 1000 MW reactor which has operated for, say, two years, would have roughly 700 times the radioactive inventory of a 20-kiloton atomic bomb. This means that all nuclear reactors hold large inventories of fission products, and any act that releases this highly radioactive inventory would create a huge environmental bomb.
This leads us on to recent accusations by the Russian Defence Minister that Ukraine was preparing to use a ‘dirty bomb’ – a weapon that uses conventional explosives laced with radioactive material, and then claim that it was a Russian bomb. It is hard to discuss the welter of claims and counterclaims in the present war where truth is in short supply, but this claim is difficult to believe for several reasons. For a start, to obtain radioactive material effectively requires the operation of a reprocessing plant, which Ukraine does not have. Neutral bystanders have dismissed the likelihood and significance of such a dirty bomb being used by Ukraine.
To be doubly sure, Ukraine asked the International Atomic Energy Agency to check these claims and it found there were no indications of undeclared nuclear activities and materials by Ukraine.
To sum up, the situation in Ukraine remains very serious due to Russia’s actions at and near Ukraine’s nuclear power plants, especially at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear facility. We must continue to press for an end to the war, not least because of this specific risk.