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Russia’s attack on Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant has spread nuclear anxiety across the continent.
On Friday morning, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky sent a warning “to all Ukrainians, to all Europeans, to everyone who knows the word Chernobyl”.
This is just one of the environmental disasters that could be triggered by Moscow’s decision to wage war in a heavily industrialized country.
“We are already witnessing a massive and ecologically disastrous attack from Russia,” Olexiy Angurets, the head of Ukrainian environmental NGO Zylenyi Svit, told POLITICO in a call from the city of Dnipro as he was preparing to participate in his defence.
By sunrise, according to Ukrainian authorities, the Zaporizhzhia fire was under control and Russian forces had taken control of Europe’s largest nuclear facility, which supplies a quarter of Ukraine’s electricity. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said essential equipment was not damaged. Ukraine’s nuclear regulator said staff continued to work.
On Friday morning, IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said there had been no release of radioactive material but the situation continued “to be very tense and difficult”.
Analysts argued that a repeat of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster was unlikely because Zaporizhzhia uses different cooling technology. There is a “very limited risk” of radioactive release even if a missile were to hit the plant, said Leon Cizelj, president of the European Nuclear Society, and it would take a deliberate barrage to break through the concrete shell. Even then “the effect will be limited to 10, 20 kilometers”.
Lars van Dassen, executive director of the Global Institute for Nuclear Security, said: “Yes, something can go wrong, but not as bad as Chernobyl.”
Russia’s war in Ukraine is “special,” said Richard Pearshouse, environment chief at Human Rights Watch. Due to the presence of hundreds of chemical, metallurgical and mining sites, atomic power stations and nuclear waste dumps, “the risks are enormous”.
Ukraine has the seventh largest installed nuclear capacity in the world and the second in Europe, after France. Grossi said this week that the “ongoing military conflict in a country that has an extensive nuclear program” had put the organization on high alert. The Ukrainian nuclear safety authority has requested the help of the IAEA to guarantee the safety of the plants.
James Acton, co-director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said nuclear power plants “are not designed for war zones” and warned that “much of the fuel in these other reactors is significantly more radioactive than the fuel at Chernobyl.
Two low-level nuclear waste storage facilities in Kiev and Kharkiv have already been affected, according to the IAEA. “These two incidents highlight the very real risk of facilities containing radioactive materials being damaged during the conflict, with potentially serious consequences for human health and the environment,” Grossi said.
Zelenskyy’s warning of a repeat of Chernobyl came days after Russian troops forced their way into the real Chernobyl. The battle caused radiation levels to rise, but authorities said even the worst-case scenario would not see contamination breach the 30-kilometre exclusion zone around the site.
On Thursday, Ukraine informed the IAEA that Chernobyl workers were facing “psychological pressure and moral exhaustion”, Grossi said, stressing the need for personnel to rest and rotate for safety reasons. .
“They are the walls between survival and potential catastrophe,” van Dassen said.
In wars, the immediate suffering of civilians, the struggle for survival, or the achievement of military objectives trump other concerns. But amid the chaos of the bomb now, pay later, Pearshouse warned that “environmental crises can compound humanitarian crises and…these effects often linger longer, after the guns have fallen silent”.
In the past, Russia has resisted attempts by the UN to set standards for environmental protection in wartime.
While the dangers of radiation have drawn public attention, other industrial sites also have the capacity to cause enormous damage.
Massive fires are already burning at oil depots and ammunition dumps. Analysis by Dutch peace NGO PAX, shared exclusively with POLITICO, used social media and satellite photography to identify more than two dozen sites where spills, explosions or fires were occurring that were damaging to the environment. ‘environment. They included power stations, chemical warehouses and power stations.
In recent wars in the Middle East, said Wim Zwijnenburg, project manager at PAX, much of the damage to industrial and oil infrastructure occurred in remote desert areas — Ukraine is very different. “In this case, we are really looking for targeted industrial sites near populated areas,” he said.
The long-term health and ecological risks of such incidents are site-specific and “impossible to assess without detailed post-conflict field research,” said Doug Weir, director of research and policy at the Conflict Observatory. and the environment. This is why damage tracking is crucial, he added.
Ukraine carries the legacy of Soviet-led industrialization that massively increased its nuclear output and sought to exploit the vast reserves of coal, iron, titanium and other minerals beneath its soil. There are also chemical, manufacturing and metallurgical plants, many housing hazards that, if unleashed, could render entire neighborhoods unlivable for decades.
In the eastern region of Donbass alone, there are 4,000 dangerous sites, according to an unpublished report commissioned by the UK Embassy in Kyiv and shared with POLITICO. In 2019, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe reported 465 tailings storage facilities across Ukraine, containing more than 6 billion tons of waste from various industries.
There are fears that the Kremlin is deliberately targeting these civilian sites to wipe out Ukraine’s industrial base and undermine morale. A US Department of Defense official warned on Thursday that the Russians “showed a willingness to deliberately strike civilian infrastructure.”
“At this point, you can clearly see there’s a lot of damage escalation potential,” Weir said.
As well as being Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv is also an industrial hub, Zwijnenburg said, with a huge chemical industry producing fertilizers and plastics, sawmilling, cement and manufacturing. If hospitals are affected, it could produce leaks of medical waste, as happened in Syria.
Watchdogs including PAX worked to map risky sites across the country this week, but Zwijnenburg said one of the main online tools they use, Wikimapia, had been hit by attacks. attacks “probably by Russian pirates”.
If any of Ukraine’s seven hydropower plants were to be hit, it could flood large areas under the dams. The movement of troops and heavy military equipment can also cause long-term damage to protected areas and species.
Then there is the danger of neglect.
In the Donbass region, Kremlin-backed separatists four years ago stopped pumping water from the Yunkom mine, the site of a nuclear test explosion in 1979. Space analysis company Terra Motion calculated that rising radioactive water could reach the surface in just over a year.
“It has the potential to render large parts of the region uninhabitable, dumping toxic waste into rivers and groundwater,” said David Gee, Terra Motion’s technical director, possibly spilling into the Sea of Azov which is linked to the Black Sea. Terra Motion warns that there are at least three other mines in the area with the same profile.
A protracted war could also destroy Ukraine’s environmental governance, which means important things like monitoring, maintaining and starting nature conservation and restoration projects don’t happen because they don’t. aren’t a priority, Weir said.
More than 100 NGOs launched an appeal at the annual United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi asking states to fund monitoring and clean up war damage.
In the early hours of Friday morning, Ukrainian Zelenskyy begged his neighbors to pay attention to the danger.
“Europeans, please wake up,” he said.
Additional reporting by Ben Lefebvre.
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