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Nuclear site in Ukraine

A photo shows the sections of a colossal arch-shaped structure that will cover the exploded reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power station on April 23, 2013. (Photo: Genya Savilov/AFP via Getty Images)

Ukraine Plant Under Fire Showcases 'Dangerous' Nature of Nuclear Power, Experts Say

"Having reactors in a war zone is a nightmare waiting to become a grim reality," said one critic.

Kenny Stancil

Critics of atomic energy on Monday described the shelling of the Zaporizhzhia power station in southeastern Ukraine as "a warning that nuclear power plants are a liability, not an asset, especially under extreme conditions of war or climate change."

"We would not be having this conversation if we were dealing with solar panels or wind turbines."

While Kyiv and Moscow continue to trade blame for recent strikes on the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, advocates at Beyond Nuclear emphasized that regardless of who is at fault, damage to the six-reactor site could have deadly consequences "far beyond the war zone."

"If even just one of the six operational reactors there suffered catastrophic damage and released its radioactive inventory we are talking about a humanitarian disaster that would dwarf Chernobyl," Linda Pentz Gunter, international specialist at Beyond Nuclear, said in a statement.

Radioactive contamination from that 1986 nuclear accident in what is now Ukraine rendered an area of more than 1,000 square miles uninhabitable and caused the illnesses and deaths of potentially hundreds of thousands of people.

According to Beyond Nuclear, reactors at Zaporizhzhia "contain far more radioactivity, both in the working reactors and in the irradiated fuel pools, than was present at the relatively new Chernobyl Unit 4 when it exploded."

"This situation brings home all too alarmingly just how dangerous nuclear power is as an energy source," said Gunter. "We would not be having this conversation if we were dealing with solar panels or wind turbines."

"The potential to cause a catastrophic accident even on a good day should have been enough to end the use of this technology," she added. "Having reactors in a war zone is a nightmare waiting to become a grim reality."

Beyond Nuclear is not alone in sounding the alarm about the dire consequences that could materialize following damage to Zaporizhzhia or any other nuclear power plants now at risk in Ukraine.

Last week, Shaun Burnie, senior nuclear specialist with Greenpeace, told Democracy Now! that "nuclear plants are extremely vulnerable to external attack in the context of a war zone." He added, "You're looking at potential massive releases of radioactivity, potentially even greater than Chernobyl."

Buildings housing nuclear reactors are not designed to withstand missile attacks nor extreme weather events. In March 2011, a massive earthquake and tsunami led to a loss of power in three reactor buildings at Fukushima Daiichi in Japan, with calamitous results. As the fossil fuel-driven climate crisis supercharges storms, nuclear infrastructure is increasingly vulnerable to damage of that sort.

This is not the first time that nuclear engineers at Zaporizhzhia have found themselves under military assault. Russian shelling of the facility in early March sparked a fire.

None of the reactor buildings or fuel storage sites were affected then. "But after more than five months of fighting," Beyond Nuclear explained Monday, "the site has become more perilous, given its proximity to the eastern regions that are at the heart of contention between the two countries."

"The risk of fire is one of the most serious hazards at nuclear power plants on a routine basis," said Paul Gunter, reactor oversight specialist at Beyond Nuclear. "A fire at Zaporizhzhia could spread to the irradiated fuel storage pools located outside primary containment and lead to explosions and meltdowns."

"If the fuel pools are damaged and cooling water boils away, exposing the highly radioactive rods to air, we could see hydrogen explosions and the spread of radioactivity far worse than occurred at Fukushima," he continued.

Winds would distribute radioactive gases across Europe and, depending on the scale of the disaster, beyond, potentially reaching as far away as the United States. A Greenpeace analysis published earlier this year warned that severe damage to Zaporizhzhia could render large swaths of Europe "uninhabitable for decades."

Radioactive fallout from the facility could subject tens of millions of people to chronic or fatal health problems, with the effects of exposure lasting for years on end.

Thirty-six years after Ukraine's first nuclear disaster, "people still living in Chernobyl-contaminated areas are showing increases in cardiovascular disorders, issues with sight and respiration, and significantly increased rates of birth defects and deformities," said Cindy Folkers, radiation and health hazards specialist at Beyond Nuclear.

"Given the far greater amounts of radiation that could be released in the event of a major disaster at Zaporizhzhia, we would expect to see greater numbers of people seriously harmed and for far longer than the health impacts caused by Chornobyl," Folkers said.


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