Russian Takeover of Chernobyl Poses Grave Health Threat

Photograph Source: Carl Montgomery – Flickr – CC BY 2.0

The takeover of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant site by Russian military forces poses a threat to safety and health unprecedented in the atomic era.

For the first time, a war is being fought in a nation with nuclear power reactors.

Ukraine is home to the Chernobyl Reactor No. 4, which underwent a disastrous meltdown in 1986. Although the plant is no longer operating, a massive amount of radioactive waste is contained in a concrete building (called the New Safe Confinement) subsequently built over it.

Chernobyl’s reactors #1 to #3 remained operational until they were shut down in the 1990s, but still store enormous amounts of waste. Consisting mostly of Cesium-137, Strontium-90, and Plutonium-239, the waste will remain radioactive for thousands of years.

The environment for miles surrounding the Chernobyl site is still highly contaminated from the meltdown’s releases. Since Russian troops took it over, spikes in airborne radioactivity levels are being reported. The increase in radiation, according to Reuters, has been attributed to “military activity causing radioactive dust to rise into the air.”

Aside from Chernobyl, there are 15 nuclear power reactors at four plants still operating in Ukraine. Zaporozhye is home to six of the reactors, making it the largest nuclear plant in Europe and one of the 10 largest in the world. It is located in eastern Ukraine, the area closest to the border with Russia.

Each reactor, at Chernobyl and elsewhere in Ukraine, contains enormous amounts of radioactive high-level nuclear waste. A loss of cooling water would cause a massive discharge of radioactivity into the air, water and food supply.

Large-scale meltdowns at nuclear plants have occurred at Chernobyl and more recently, in 2011, at Fukushima, Japan. The health consequences have been tragic.

Over 100 radioactive chemicals only created in nuclear weapons explosions and nuclear reactor operations were unleashed into the environment. Each of these radioactive chemicals increase the risk of cancer and other diseases. The fetus, infants and young child are especially vulnerable.

In 2009, the New York Academy of Sciences published a book Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment. A team of European scientists led by Dr. Alexey Yablokov, former environmental advisor to Russian Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev, assembled over 5,000 research studies, most written in Russian and not previously published.

The results were staggering. Yablokov’s team estimated that just in the first 20 years after the Chernobyl meltdown, some 986,000 deaths attributable to it occurred, many in parts of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. The percent of children living in these areas considered in good health plunged from 80% to 20%. Rates of certain cancers soared, including childhood thyroid cancer in Ukraine (20 times higher) and Belarus (200 times higher). Rates of disease in covering many organs in the body all increased in areas closest to Chernobyl.

Yablokov’s team indicated that the number of casualties would continue to grow, well after publication of the book.

The meltdowns at Chernobyl and Fukushima were accidents. The Chernobyl disaster occurred due to human error. The Fukushima catastrophe resulted from severe weather conditions. These events were in facilities manned by scientists who desperately tried to stop the spread of radioactivity.

The current situation is different. The takeover of Chernobyl by hostile military forces shifts the chain of command in reactor management away from scientists, whose constant presence is required. CNN reports that Russian soldiers are holding the Chernobyl staff hostage.

Moreover, the Chernobyl site is now in a war zone. Russian troops moved into the Chernobyl site because it represents the shortest route from Russia to Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, from the north.

What would be the result of exchange of fire at Chernobyl? The puncturing of the containment over Reactor No. 4 alone could unleash significant amounts of radioactivity, as would any breach of water-cooled waste storage at Reactors 1-3.

Leaders must make all deliberate efforts towards a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Ukraine, which would include an end to military control of Chernobyl and other nuclear power plants in the country, so dangerous radioactivity can be secured. Avoidance of another massive release of these toxic chemicals is the highest priority, not just for Ukraine but Europe and the world, and must be avoided at all costs.

Karl Grossman and Christie Brinkley are Board members of the New York-based Radiation and Public Health Project research group; Joseph Mangano is Executive Director.