Analysis: Nuclear disaster in Ukraine could make swaths of Europe ‘uninhabitable for decades’

Russia's assault on Ukraine risks nuclear devastation "far worse even than the Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe of 2011," Greenpeace warns.

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SOURCECommon Dreams

The international environmental group Greenpeace warned Wednesday that Russia’s intensifying assault is placing Ukraine’s nuclear power facilities under serious threat, risking devastation “far worse even than the Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe of 2011.”

In a 12-page analysis, Greenpeace details the unique hazards posed by Russia’s war on Ukraine, which maintains 15 nuclear power reactors and is home to the largest nuclear energy complex in Europe. That facility, known as the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, is currently surrounded by Russian troops looking to force their way through a makeshift blockade erected Wednesday by ordinary Ukrainians.

Greenpeace’s new brief argues that the Zaporizhzhia plant is especially vulnerable to an accident or attack stemming from Russia’s invasion, which entered its seventh day on Wednesday with no end in sight.

Authored by a pair of Greenpeace nuclear specialists, the risk analysis notes that “there have been multiple safety issues with the Zaporizhzhia reactors over the decades, not least that these reactors are aging having been designed and built in the 1970s to the 1990s.”

Greenpeace raises particular concern over the complex’s susceptibility to electrical power outages, its storage of spent nuclear fuel, and risks posed by flooding given the facility’s close proximity to the massive Dnipro river system. Severe damage to the plant, the group warns, could “render vast areas of the European continent, including Russia, uninhabitable for decades.”

In the case of the 2011 Fukushima disaster—during which three nuclear reactors melted down and released radioactive plumes following an earthquake-induced tsunami—the Japanese facility’s spent nuclear fuel did not catch fire, a near miss that scientists have said should serve as a “wake-up call” for other countries.

Greenpeace’s report raises the ominous possibility that catastrophe may not be averted if the Zaporizhzhia facility is damaged in the course of Russia’s assault on Ukraine, either from an accident or an intentional bombing:

The amount of spent fuel in each of the pools at the six Zaporizhzhia reactors ranges from 132 to 157 tons as of 2017, and in total 855 tons of spent fuel are in the six pools. This is the latest publicly available data we have access to. It is not possible without precise data to say what the radiological inventory is of this spent fuel, however, in our review of the scientific and technical literature of the past two decades it appears that the average fuel burn-up of the nuclear fuel used over the last 20 years at Zaporizhzhia is 44-49GWd/tHM. This is comparable, and perhaps higher, than the nuclear fuel in the pools at Fukushima Daiichi.

In the event of a loss of cooling and resultant fire in any of the spent fuel pools at Zaporizhzhia, the potential for a very large release of radioactivity would have a devastating effect not only on Ukraine but also its neighboring countries, including Russia, and potentially, depending on the weather conditions and wind directions, on a large part of Europe. Again, it should be stressed that in the event of such a catastrophic incident, the entire power plant might have to be evacuated and a cascade of similar accidents at the other five pools as well as the six reactors might take place.

To prevent such a nightmare scenario from becoming reality, Greenpeace said Russia must end its war on Ukraine.

“So long as this war continues, the military threat to Ukraine’s nuclear plants will remain. This is one further reason, amongst so many, why Putin needs to immediately cease his war on Ukraine,” Jan Vande Putte, a radiation protection adviser and nuclear campaigner for Greenpeace East Asia and Greenpeace Belgium, said in a statement Wednesday.

“For the first time in history, a major war is being waged in a country with multiple nuclear reactors and thousands of tons of highly radioactive spent fuel,” he continued. “The war in southern Ukraine around Zaporizhzhia puts them all at heightened risk of a severe accident.”

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