Before Russian troops crossed the border into Ukraine last month, Olena Pareniuk and Kateryna Shavanova worked at Chernobyl studying microorganisms in the exclusion zone and those living in the radioactive lava inside the site’s collapsed No. 4 reactor. Both of them are currently in Ukraine. Pareniuk, near Chernivtsi, is at Shavanova’s side. Writing together, they corresponded with TIME earlier this week about the dangers that Russian military activity poses to Chernobyl and the country’s nuclear infrastructure, and the possible consequences of an accident. The conversation was condensed for clarity and length.
Which are the risks currently at Chernobyl’s site?
Rotating the Chernobyl nuclear energy plant staff is a vital requirement. On February 23, the staff arrived at Chernobyl’s nuclear power station. The enemy is not allowing any change to the staff. They are physically and psychologically exhausted by the absence of rotations and constant pressure from armed men. The facility may lose control, and staff might not be able to react to external and internal initial events like fire.
A connection to the automated control system was lost, as well accurate information on radiation status for the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. The Chernobyl nuclear power plant has not had electricity since 11:22 pm on March 9, 2022. According to plant’s management, an additional supply of diesel fuel for diesel power plants has been delivered to the site, providing emergency power supply for spent nuclear fuel storage facilities, as well as the New Safe Confinement facility. The Ukrainian staff restored electricity on Monday, but there was again an interruption Tuesday. Russian troops are the main threat to Chernobyl Exclusion Area.
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Which is Chernobyl’s worst scenario?
If there’s a power cut, it could result in the loss of safety systems or equipment. This includes ventilation, heat dissipation and technological systems. Remote control of radiation and nuclear safety indicators in storage facilities and the New Safe Consignment facility and other facilities is not possible. It will become impossible for operators to regulate the temperature or level of spent nuclear fuel storage pool water.
In the spent nuclear fuel stock, there are radionuclides with a long life span that could be used to cause an accident. They can also get in the Kakhovka Reservoir or further down the Dnipro river, where they will reach the Black Sea. Radiation could cause widespread radiation contamination for many thousands of year. If one unit of spent fuel is damaged or it’s destroyed, the radioactive cloud could affect Russia and neighboring countries.
What are the risks to Ukraine’s other nuclear reactors?
Russian military units still control the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power station and Energodar city. There haven’t been changes to the condition of power units: two units are working, two power units are under repair (№ 1 and № 6), the rest are stopped. Seven nuclear facilities are located at Zaporizhzhya. Six nuclear power units, and one spent nuclear fuel storage area are equal to approximately 20 Chernobyls. It is an enormous amount of nuclear material that is out of date. [Ukraine’s] control, [and]The International Atomic Energy Association is also affected. It is dangerous not just for Ukraine but also for nearby countries. Other Ukrainian nuclear power plants are under Ukraine’s control, but the country is at war and the situation is changing very quickly.
Is there a chance of major nuclear incidents due to fighting?
Chernobyl & Zaporizhzhya, both in Ukraine, are currently under threat. Russian troops continue to violate radiation safety and security requirements, which further worsens radiation conditions and contributes towards the spreading of radioactive contamination beyond the Chernobyl Exclusion Area. The explosion could result in the destruction of Chernobyl’s confinement structures, which may cause the release radioactive material into the environment.
The direction and speed of wind during an accident at Zaporizhzhya will determine the danger. The wind was blowing to the southwest during the fighting. It was heading towards Crimea and Melitopol as well Rostov, Turkey, and the Black Sea. The Black Sea is connected to the Mediterranean and radioactive contamination will be spread across the entire basin if an accident occurs. This could also cause harm to many other countries.
Problem is, the Zaporizhzhya accident at the nuclear power station Zaporizhzhya has caused serious damage. [ZNPP]If it does happen, the outcome may not be as catastrophic as what occurred at Chernobyl. ZNPP’s reactor construction is safer than that at Chernobyl. However, the whole Soviet Union dealt with the Chernobyl disaster. In the current hostilities situation, it will prove difficult to eliminate the accident. Ukraine does not have sufficient resources. We will not even discuss the risks of disrupting the integrity of the Zaporizhzhya reactors—because these are six power units, and each of them can do as much damage as Chernobyl, polluting the air of the entire Northern Hemisphere.
In any case, it is impossible to know how things will develop. Russians act insane and violate all international agreements. A nuclear plant’s territory will not be occupied by anyone with any common sense. We, experts in the Fukushima disaster, find such behaviour to be completely contrary to our knowledge of the world. For us, it’s as if the river flowed up in the sky by itself or the sky turned orange. You can do anything. [with]People with a damaged brain. This nuclear material can fall into anyone’s hands and anything can be done with it.
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