For a small tribe of veteran atomic experts who helped secure the Soviet Union’s nuclear energy and missiles as it started to fall apart in the late 1980s, the grainy images of the fighting around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine, Europe’s largest, were like something out of a frightening alternative reality.
That smoke. Those tracers. That fire. They, more than most others, knew the precise mechanics of how an accident could quickly turn into disaster.
Although the damage appears to have been contained — and Europe spared a nuclear disaster on the level of Fukushima — nuclear experts said they were still fearful as Russia’s military battles its way across Ukraine. The country has four active nuclear power plants and one failed one, Chernobyl, whose radiation still requires constant upkeep.
“This morning I thought about the Cuban missile crisis,” said Frank von Hippel, a theoretical physicist at Princeton University, who tracked loose nuclear weapons on behalf of the Clinton White House and helped lead efforts to calm the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union.
“This is the first time we’ve had a war among nuclear reactors,” von Hippel said. “That was not a scenario we considered.”
Russian forces seize Ukrainian nuclear power plant after shelling sets it on fire
Nuclear fears already shot up last week in the opening phases of the invasion, as Russian troops took control of the Chernobyl nuclear site as they swept south toward Kyiv from Belarus. And as they battled along a key stretch of the Dnieper River on Thursday near the industrial city of Zaporizhzhia, they swung into position around the vast nuclear power plant and eventually captured it. Ukrainian officials warned that the South Ukraine Nuclear Power Plant in Mykolaiv province could be next, with fighting underway about 19 miles from the site.