The fear that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could escalate to a nuclear war is real. But what happens if any of the country’s 15 nuclear power reactors get caught in the crossfire?
When the Chernobyl nuclear site in Ukraine was captured by Russian forces last week, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry warned of the possibility of “another ecological disaster.”
Normal radiation levels in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone — which includes four closed reactors, one of which melted down in 1986 and spread radioactive waste across Europe — were exceeded according to Ukraine’s state nuclear regulator, reportedly because of military activity in the area.
But, beyond the Chernobyl plant, there are concerns that some of Ukraine’s 15 active nuclear reactors could be caught in the crossfire.
“It is a unique situation in the history of nuclear power — in fact in history — that we have a situation where a nation is operating 15 nuclear reactors and is in the middle of a full-scale war,” Shaun Burnie, nuclear specialist with Greenpeace East Asia, told DW. The plants provide about half of Ukraine’s electricity, though right now only nine of the 15 reactors are operating, Burnie said.
“The idea of building in protection in the event of a full-scale war was never part of a nation’s planning, at least in terms of commercial nuclear power,” he added.
Though some Cold War-era reactors in the Soviet Union were built underground to ward off military threats, the “enormous facilities” in Ukraine were all built above ground, Burnie said.
“A nuclear power plant is one of the most complex and sensitive industrial installations, which require a very complex set of resources in ready state at all times to keep them safe. This cannot be guaranteed in a war,” Burnie and Greenpeace East Asia colleague Jan Vande Putte wrote in a briefing released Wednesday on the vulnerability of nuclear plants during military conflict.