In Ukraine: Prospect of Nuclear Warfare without Bombs

January 31, 2022

Not news.
Nuclear power plants represent a singular security challenge.

The Ukraine crisis is providing us with a unique oppportunity to envision a future that is different.

Craig Hooper holds a PhD in Epidemiology from Harvard, and specializes in analyzing threats from chemical, biological and radiological sources.

Craig Hooper in Forbes:

As Russia’s buildup on the Ukrainian border continues, few observers note that an invasion of Ukraine could put nuclear reactors on the front line of military conflict. The world is underestimating the risk that full-scale, no-holds-barred conventional warfare could spark a catastrophic reactor failure, causing an unprecedented regional nuclear emergency. 

The threat is real. Ukraine is heavily dependent upon nuclear power, maintaining four nuclear power plants and stewardship of the shattered nuclear site at Chernobyl. In a major war, all 15 reactors at Ukraine’s nuclear power facilities would be at risk, but even a desultory Russian incursion into eastern Ukraine is likely to expose at least six active reactors to the uncertainty of a ground combat environment.

The world has little experience with reactors in a war zone. Since humanity first harnessed the atom, the world has only experienced two “major” accidents—Chernobyl and Japan’s Fukushima disaster. A Russian invasion, coupled with an extended conventional war throughout Ukraine, could generate multiple International Atomic Energy Agency “Level 7” accidents in a matter of days. Such a contingency would induce a massive refugee exodus and could render much of Ukraine uninhabitable for decades. 

Turning the Ukraine into a dystopian landscape, pockmarked by radioactive exclusion zones, would be an extreme method to obtain the defensive zone Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to want. Managing a massive Western-focused migratory crisis and environmental cleanup would absorb Europe for years. The work would distract European leaders and empower nativist governments that tend to be aligned with Russia’s baser interests, giving an overextended Russia breathing room as the country teeters on the brink of technological, demographic, and financial exhaustion. 

Put bluntly, the integrity of Ukrainian nuclear reactors is a strategic matter, critical for both NATO and non-NATO countries alike. Causing a severe radiological accident for strategic purposes is unacceptable. A deliberate aggravation of an emerging nuclear catastrophe—preventing mitigation measures or allowing reactors to deliberately melt down and potentially contaminate wide portions of Europe—would simply be nuclear warfare without bombs.  

Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant is a particular risk. It is the second-largest nuclear power plant in Europe (essentially tied with a French reactor complex near Calais), and one of the 10 largest nuclear power plants in the world. The site has little protection, and the six VVER-1000 pressurized water reactors could easily be embroiled in any Russian invasion. 

If war comes, the fight will be close by. The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant is located only 120 miles from the current “front line” in the Donbass region and is on the hard-to-defend east bank of the Dnieper River. Aside from the geographical hazards, the power plant provides about a quarter of Ukraine’s total electrical power. Given the importance of the electricity, plant managers will be reluctant to shut it down, securing the reactors only at the very last possible second. Ukraine’s desperate need for energy only compounds the opportunities for an accident. 

Outside of direct battle damage, cyber and other Russian-sourced “grey zone” mischief could make the plant unmanageable even before the battle arrives at the reactor gates. 

Though unlikely, direct bombardment could cause serious damage to reactor containment structures. While the reactor structures themselves are strong, warfare at the plant could kill key personnel and destroy command-and-control structures, monitoring sensors or critical reactor-cooling infrastructure. And, as an operating power plant, the reactors are not the only threat. Dangerous spent fuel rods are sitting in vulnerable cooling ponds, while older fuel sits in the site’s 167 dry spent fuel assemblies

If the reactors suffer any operational anomalies, crisis management is not going to happen. Support infrastructure needed for safe reactor management will collapse during conflict. Plant security forces will disappear, operators will flee, and, if an accident occurs, mitigating measures will be impossible. 

It seems unlikely that Russia has mobilized trained reactor operators and prepared reactor crisis-management teams to take over any “liberated” power plants. The heroic measures that kept the Chernobyl nuclear accident and Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster from becoming far more damaging events just will not happen in a war zone. 

Again, the risks are very high. The world has never dealt with an unmanaged meltdown at a large nuclear power plant. The very real prospect of an extended and unmitigated incident at a six-reactor powerplant in a war zone is worth urgent and immediate consultations throughout Europe and NATO.  

Obviously this has occurred to the Russians before.

New York Times March 15, 2018:

The Trump administration accused Russia on Thursday of engineering a series of cyberattacks that targeted American and European nuclear power plants and water and electric systems, and could have sabotaged or shut power plants off at will.

United States officials and private security firms saw the attacks as a signal by Moscow that it could disrupt the West’s critical facilities in the event of a conflict.

They said the strikes accelerated in late 2015, at the same time the Russian interference in the American election was underway. The attackers had compromised some operators in North America and Europe by spring 2017, after President Trump was inaugurated.

In the following months, according to a Department of Homeland Security report issued on Thursday, Russian hackers made their way to machines with access to critical control systems at power plants that were not identified. The hackers never went so far as to sabotage or shut down the computer systems that guide the operations of the plants.

5 Responses to “In Ukraine: Prospect of Nuclear Warfare without Bombs”

  1. neilrieck Says:

    So if the presence of nuclear reactors might muddy the waters then why is USA Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, so adamant about expanding NATO into Ukraine. We know from Wikileaks that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton privately took credit for using NATO to take down Libya (a country and economy that has never recovered BTW). I am getting the feeling that the Secretary of State answers to the American military industrial economy rather than the president.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      It think. that’s a stretch. Not an expert but most reporting suggests majority of Ukrainians ID with the west rather than Russia. Obviously there are security concerns. Joining NATO might or might not be the solution, but it is not by itself evidence of some corrupt intent.

  2. talies Says:

    This is why I oppose nuclear fission energy. It is leaving thousands of years legacy of danger. In fact, it would be a miracle if at some point in the future radioactive material is not released.

    • jfon Says:

      The Ukrainian reactors are pressurised water reactors with containment, not Chernobyl-style RBMKs. The containment is a reinforced concrete dome five feet thick, which would take serious attack to breach. If they were breached, and the pressure vessel too, the cooling water would flash to steam and be out of there before the fuel elements had a chance to melt down, so there would be little dispersive energy to carry fission products away. (Chernobyl had a massive steam explosion, that blew the 1300 ton lid right off the reactor, to spread the fuel around.)
      Worst case scenario would be a local release of volatile fission products, notably iodine and cesium. Ukrainians know how to deal with that – stop drinking the milk there for two months. Iodine 131 has an eight day half life – in eight weeks, the level of radiation has gone down by 99.6%. iodine concentrates in the thyroid gland, so after Chernobyl, it had a short but intense period of activity, which induced thyroid cancer in thousands of children. Adults, whose thyroid glands were no longer growing, did not show such an increase. Cesium 137, the other notable low-boiling point radioisotope in reactors, has a 30 year half-life, and can be found more or less throughout the body. It’s residence time in the body has a half-life of seventy days, so it does not concentrate either in time or in point of attack. This means that for an equivalent release, its local toxicity is thousands of times lower than week-old iodine 131. The dose over twenty years was equivalent to that recieved in seconds from a full body CT scan. The area around Chernobyl has been cleared of people, but the animals, who can’t read warning signs, are thriving.

    • neilrieck Says:

      I have always been pro-fission (it is the only viable near-term replacement for fossil fuels that does not release CO2. That said, it was only when I read this article that I wondered if the USA + NATO might target them. On a related note, the USA has been continually trying to block Nordstream2 between Russia and Germany. I now wonder if the USA + NATO might “accidentally” destroy it.

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