The deadly peril posed by nuclear power plants embroiled in a war zone — something we have been warning about since before the Russian invasion of Ukraine — just came into even sharper focus.
The continued military activity around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, home to six of Ukraine’s 15 reactors, has raised worldwide concern about the terrible consequences should a missile strike a reactor, or worse, the unprotected irradiated fuel pools or radioactive waste storage casks.
Let’s remember that the 1986 Chornobyl nuclear disaster — the result of the explosion of a single, relatively new unit — has rendered a 1,000 square mile region (the Exlusion Zone) uninhabitable still today and for the foreseeable future. Any one of the Zaporizhzhia reactors contains a far larger radioactive inventory and a more densely packed fuel pool than was the case at Chornobyl. A major breach of any one of the six would release long-lasting radioactive contamination into the environment, forcing permanent evacuations and sickening countless people.
Several obvious conclusions emerge from all this.
1) Nuclear reactors cannot be in a war zone.
2) The consequences of an attack on a nuclear plant could be catastrophic, long-lasting and far-reaching.
3) It is impossible to predict where a war might happen (Lindsey Graham’s recent reckless statements remind us that yes, there could even be (civil) war again here in the US).
4) The odds of a catastrophic failure at a nuclear plant must be zero given the unacceptable consequences; an impossibility.
5) Nuclear power plants are not only ill-suited to the climate of war, but also to both the present and impending extremes of climate change (major sea-level rise; floods; fires; violent weather events etc).
Therefore, it is senseless and irresponsible to continue using nuclear power as an energy source.
Instead, as a 14-person delegation from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) made its way to the Zaporizhzhia plant, its General Secretary, Rafael Grossi, stated that theirs was a mission “that seeks to prevent a nuclear accident and to preserve this important — the largest, the biggest — nuclear power plant in Europe”.
Preserve? Well, as Henry Sokolski just reminded us in his August 31 article — The Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Plant Is Kindling for World War III — “The IAEA was founded seventy years ago to promote nuclear power.” It is set up to “conduct occasional nuclear audits, not to physically protect plants against military attacks or to demilitarize zones around them,” he wrote. “The IAEA can’t provide the Zaporizhzhia plant with any defenses, nor will it risk keeping IAEA staff on-site to serve as defensive tripwires.”
James Acton, co-director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, issued similar warnings about the limitations of the IAEA delegation when he was interviewed about the worsening situation at Zaporizhzhia and the IAEA visit on the August 29th edition of The Rachel Maddow Show.
“We should be realistic about what they can achieve,” he said. “It’s their job to report what’s going on in the plant, to assess the safety and security features on the plant and to report back. They don’t have a magic way of defending the plant or repairing broken equipment.”
The White House has called for the Zaporizhzhia reactors to be shut down. It should be calling for all reactors to be shut down. Instead, it is blindly persisting with nuclear power as a present and future energy program.
The White House is not alone, of course. The illogical — and arguably insane — response to the war in Ukraine by a number of governments has been to insist on the continued or even expanded use of nuclear energy. Given what is at stake in so doing — and given the obvious safer, faster and cheaper alternatives of energy efficiency and renewable energy— this appears to be a symptom of some kind of collective madness.
Let’s face it, if Zaporizhzhia was a 6-acre wind farm instead of a 6-reactor nuclear power plant, we wouldn’t even be talking about it, let alone worrying about how to pronounce it.
Linda Pentz Gunter is the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear and writes for and curates Beyond Nuclear International.