In the Line of Eternal Fire: Ukraine’s Nuclear Reactors

The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine — consisting of six VVER-1000 reactors — is the largest nuclear power plant in Europe. Photo: Ralf1969/Wikimedia Commons.

As Craig Hooper so chillingly warned us in his December 28, 2021 article for Forbes, a Russian invasion of Ukraine, “could put nuclear reactors on the front line of military conflict.” The result, he said, depending on the tactics deployed by the Russians, could be equivalent to “nuclear warfare without bombs.”

It’s yet one more reminder of just how much an already perilous situation can become orders of magnitude worse, once you introduce the risk of major radioactive releases into the equation.

There are 15 reactors in Ukraine providing about 50% of the country’s electricity. Hooper’s article speculates not only on what could happen if any one of these nuclear sites — such as the six-reactor VVER-1000 complex at Zaporizhzhia  — should find itself in the midst of armed conflict or bombardment. He also postulates intentional sabotage by Russia as a strategic measure — “allowing reactors to deliberately melt down and potentially contaminate wide portions of Europe.”

This may sound far-fetched, or, at least, we hope it does. And the Forbes article roundly condemns Russia without factoring in the bristling U.S.-led buildup of NATO armaments on the border, none of which is easing tensions, and which only worsens the likelihood that Ukraine’s nuclear plants could find themselves literally in the line of fire. (For an interesting assortment of perspectives from all sides, endeavoring to unravel the complexities of this situation, Better World Info provides a useful resource.)

Either way, the vulnerability of operating reactors in Ukraine is a danger that is not taken nearly seriously enough. As far as I can tell, Hooper’s is the only article on the still unfolding tension between Russia and Ukraine that has even mentioned the risks posed by those 15 reactors. (A wind farm in a war zone comes with no such hazards.)

The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine — consisting of six VVER-1000 reactors — is the largest nuclear power plant in Europe. (Photo: Ralf1969/Wikimedia Commons)

Instead, the implications of a radiological disaster ensuing should Russia indeed invade Ukraine, have been largely ignored in favor of panic over a potential energy crisis in Europe, should Russia cut off gas supplies in an effort to dampen European support for Ukraine in the on-going dispute.

This is in itself is a reminder that Europe could have avoided such dependence on imported fossil fuels — while at the same time contributing to a meaningful reduction in greenhouse gas emissions — by developing home-grown renewable energy decades ago, when climate change was already recognized as a threat.

We have, of course, already seen what can happen when radioactive contamination adds to an existing “natural” disaster. After the major earthquake that hit Japan on March 11,  2011, followed by the devastating tsunami, rescue operations in some hard-hit areas were hampered by high levels of radiation released by the subsequent triple meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi. How many lives were lost in the earthquake or tsunami that might have been saved had first responders been able to safely enter those disaster zones?

If conflict rages in a region where nuclear power plants are located, the personnel working there cannot simply abandon them. This was the terrible dilemma faced by TEPCO and then Japanese president, Naoto Kan, who insisted that the Fukushima Daiichi workforce stay in place at the risk of their lives.

Abandoning Daiichi to a major runaway meltdown would have forced evacuations further afield, including from the still operating Fukushima Daiini nuclear power plant less than 10 miles down the coast. Abandoning Daiini would have meant more meltdowns. And so on. Such a cascade of nuclear disasters would have necessitated the evacuation of Tokyo, a city of close to 14 million people. That, Kan later said, would have been the end of Japan as a nation.

Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenksy (far left) and Russian president, Vladimir Putin (far right, with Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron), shared a table at the 2019 Normandy Summit. Now, war between the two countries looms. (Photo: Пресс-служба Президента Российской Федерации/Wikimedia Commons

There is, of course, no need to put anyone into such a “playing God” situation, condemning the few to save the many due to the folly of choosing an energy source that could potentially irradiate an entire country. You simply stop using nuclear power.

But that still leaves the waste. And here we return to the same dilemma. That radioactive waste, some of it lethal for hundreds of thousands of years, cannot be stored anywhere that might become politically volatile.

This was, in part, the driver behind the Australian Pangea project, which viewed that nation as the ideal venue for the world’s underground radioactive waste repository, not only because of the suitable geology, but because it was a country unlikely to be caught up in war.

However, Pangea (full disclosure; this was a project of my eventually estranged and now deceased cousin, David Pentz) thoroughly failed the environmental justice test, an essential criterion for managing the dangerous detritus of the Nuclear Age. Ethically, you cannot demand that nuclear waste be dumped on those who never made it and don’t want it. The massive transport risks were also a deal killer.

As Edgar Hagen’s film — Journey to the Safest Place on Earth — so effectively conveyed, finding a site for high-level radioactive waste that is geologically and ethically sound andpolitically stable is probably an impossibility. All the more reason not to exacerbate this problem by continuing to make yet more waste.

As Charlie Chaplin already articulated so brilliantly back in 1940 in The Great Dictator, it would be better if the misguided megalomaniacs who run far too many countries in this world, would stop war-mongering and concentrate on a collective effort to save humanity. These days, that means from the looming disaster that is the climate emergency.

But the reality is that we are a warlike species. Nothing in our history suggests we are evolving on this front, even if most of us actually abhor war. We continue to elect leaders who are all too willing to lead us headlong into one.

Therefore, removing everything that could make the consequences of a war even more deadly, is an urgent imperative. That means abolishing nuclear weapons, but it also means closing and dismantling the world’s nuclear power plants. And it most certainly means a halt to any further development and expansion of nuclear power, especially in volatile regions like the Middle East.

We may yet escape the Holocaust of a true nuclear war. But, if we don’t abolish nuclear power, we may still see that “nuclear war without bombs”.

Linda Pentz Gunter is the editor and curator of BeyondNuclearInternational.org and the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear. She can be contacted at linda@beyondnuclear.org.