Nuclear Plants Were Not Designed for War

March 20, 2022

The war in Ukraine has brought up the security issue of nuclear power plants in a war zone. Experiment currently in progress. Relevant discussion above and below from Bill Maher’s interview with former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, and others.

There are other issues related to security. One is proliferation of nuclear weapons. Another is the potential for operating nuclear plants to be weaponized in a cyber attack.
Fair to point out that those building a new generation of nuclear plants say these problems have been solved, and I hope that’s true. Also fair to say not everyone believes that.
The security implications of multiplying thousands of nuclear reactors throughout the developing world is certainly worth discussion. Experts, by all means, weigh in.

Kate Brown and Susan Solomon in the Washington Post:

The day Russia invaded Ukraine, Russian forces took control of the decommissioned Chernobyl nuclear power plant. A week later, flares from Russian artillery lit up the Zaporizhzhia plant; Ukrainian media reported that the Russian army had placed land mines around the plant’s perimeter and was stockpiling arms at both nuclear installations. The army is now pointed at yet another nuclear facility, the South Ukraine plant.

The world is watching the first war in a nuclearized country — and combat has already reached active reactors. It is difficult to believe, but in all the decades of imagining nuclear-emergency scenarios, engineers did not design for an event so human and inevitable as war.

Military strategists routinely target electrical grids and power plants to incapacitate the enemy. But Russia’s is the first invasion of a country that derives more than half its energy from nuclear power. It stands to reason that Russian generals will seek to capture all 15 active reactors in Ukraine. The Russian army appears to be using the nuclear installations as safe havens, calculating that the Ukrainians will not fire on them, but we can still expect plenty more fearful nights spent riveted to scenes of battles over huge concrete towers and rows of basins filled with radioactive spent nuclear fuel: It turns out that reactor containment buildings have never been stress-tested for blows from heavy artillery or missiles.

Even without a direct hit on a reactor, we are learning of the fragility of nuclear power plants. Normal oversight and operations have essentially been replaced by isolation and disorder. Workers at Chernobyl have been on the job continuously for more than three weeks. They have no clean clothes (important for nuclear workers), no real beds, no contact with family, no proper meals or rest. At the Zaporizhzhia plant, according to a Ukrainian official, Russian soldiers have forced employees into submission. Employee-hostages — exhausted, hungry and stressed — could make mistakes. So could the untrained Russian military personnel who are giving the orders.

Communication to these sites is largely cut off. Independent oversight experts cannot enter to verify safe operations or deliver spare parts. Russian diplomats continue to enjoy a privileged role at the International Atomic Energy Agency, despite the war. We have to rely on what the IAEA and the Russian army tell us. In the past, Soviet nuclear information services specialized in secrecy and mistruths. One of us, while working on a history of Chernobyl, found that the IAEA had difficulty acknowledging the public health impact of the fallout from the 1986 explosion there. Russian information services again appear to be opaque and untrustworthy. If an accident occurs, we don’t have confidence that rescue squads and firefighters can get to captured nuclear installations to deal with infernos and injuries. Nor can we be sure that we will learn the full extent of the damage and spread of radioactive sources.

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.

Still, new computer screenshots released by the Department of Homeland Security on Thursday made clear that Russian state hackers had the foothold they would have needed to manipulate or shut down power plants.

“We now have evidence they’re sitting on the machines, connected to industrial control infrastructure, that allow them to effectively turn the power off or effect sabotage,” said Eric Chien, a security technology director at Symantec, a digital security firm.

“From what we can see, they were there. They have the ability to shut the power off. All that’s missing is some political motivation,” Mr. Chien said.

American intelligence agencies were aware of the attacks for the past year and a half, and the Department of Homeland Security and the F.B.I. first issued urgent warnings to utility companies in June. On Thursday, both agencies offered new details as the Trump administration imposed sanctions against Russian individuals and organizations it accused of election meddling and “malicious cyberattacks.”

It was the first time the administration officially named Russia as the perpetrator of the assaults. And it marked the third time in recent months that the White House, departing from its usual reluctance to publicly reveal intelligence, blamed foreign government forces for attacks on infrastructure in the United States.

Washington Post again:

For a long while — even as recently as last month — nuclear power looked like a possible solution to climate change, despite the risks surrounding its reactors and spent fuel. But we now see that it is vulnerable not only to terrorism but to war. This is also a war of oil and gas, of course: Global reliance on these energy sources from Russia empowered Russian President Vladimir Putin to carry out his aggression, believing that the United States and especially Europe would stand by for fear of damage to their economies. But both have found the strength and unity to switch away from Russian fossil fuels, and Europe is accelerating its transition to wind and solar power, which will help protect the world not only from tyranny but also from climate change. In a Ukraine powered by renewable energy sources, bombs would scatter hazardous solid wastes nearby, but wind and solar sources wouldn’t emit radioactive toxins that blow thousands of miles on air currents, remain in environments for centuries and migrate up the food chain. What’s more, renewables can be decentralized, distributing power sources too broadly to be a prime target. Ukraine has abundant solar and wind resources that it could harness, but little has been implemented so far. (The combined solar and wind potential in Ukraine would be about 150 percent of what its nuclear power production is now.)

In 2011, after a tsunami breached the sea wall of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan, flooding the site and causing the meltdown of three reactors, European regulatory officials reviewed the safety of European reactors, including those in Ukraine. The new safety assessment imagined floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, fires, extreme weather, the loss of power, terrorist attacks and airplanes crashing into reactors, but not the conquest of an advancing army.

As power was cut to the Chernobyl plant this month, nuclear engineers explained the importance of the electricity grid — even for plants that have been out of operation for decades. Chernobyl’s molten radioactive lava self-heats inside the belly of the blown reactor. Without ventilation, which requires electricity, hot air forms condensation that rains down inside the building, corroding and damaging equipment. With no electricity, the operators, who are working at gunpoint, have no idea of radiation levels inside the shelter. All anyone knows is that monitoring devices across the Chernobyl zone showed a spike in radioactivity a few days after the invasion. Then the monitors were hacked and went radio silent.

Chernobyl’s spent fuel is another danger. Left to its own devices, it can heat up to 1,000 degrees Celsius. At high temperatures, the zirconium sleeves covering the fuel can ignite. After the Chernobyl accident in 1986, Soviet liquidators hastily built huge basins to store highly radioactive spent fuel rods. Water pumped into the basins cools the fuel and blocks radioactive gamma rays that emanate from the irradiated uranium. Now 20,000 fuel rods are stored in Chernobyl basins designed for 17,000. Officials at the IAEA stated March 9 that there is little risk the fuel will catch fire, since the rods are no longer very hot. Yet a U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission study from 2000 found that “the possibility of a zirconium fire cannot be dismissed even many years after a final reactor shutdown.”

When one of us asked a former plant worker, Aleksandr Kupny, from the nearby city of Slavutych, also without power, about the IAEA’s statement that the spent fuel is safe without electricity, he said: “That’s fine for them to say, sitting in Vienna. For those of us here next to the plant, we are not so secure. In Kyshtym [Russia] in 1957, a nuclear waste storage site blew up, and that was just radioactive waste, not fuel.”

Even more troubling is the fact that the 15 active nuclear power reactors in Ukraine are still operating or were shut down only recently. They are chock-full of extremely radioactive, hot nuclear fuel, both inside the reactors and in cooling ponds. As nuclear materials expert Claire Corkhill explained to the BBC, if electricity is cut to those plants as it was to Chernobyl, we could face a meltdown of multiple reactors similar to the catastrophe at Fukushima.

As the Russian tanks were about to roll into the Chernobyl site on the first day of the war, according to an account in the Wall Street Journal, the shift supervisor at the plant, Valentin Heiko, considered his options, later recalling: “It was not clear what to do. … There was no protocol in case of war.” Heiko was witness to a new chapter in human history, the first full-scale war in a nuclear country. Let’s hope it’s a short chapter. Nuclear power plants and war make for a terrible union.

Below, combined interviews with Retired General Richard Zilmer, formerly commander of US Forces in Anbar Province, Iraq – who studies energy and national security, with informed comments from Kevin Beeson and Don Schurr, local officials in central Michigan communities with new wind farms.

6 Responses to “Nuclear Plants Were Not Designed for War”

  1. Jim Torson Says:

    Episode #409 of the Nuclear Hotseat weekly podcast was an interview with Kate Brown. Here’s the description:

    This Week’s Featured Interview:
    • Chernobyl Radiation’s true health impact revealed:  A very special interview with Kate Brown, author of Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future. She is an historian of environmental and nuclear history at MIT and the author of the Plutopia, which won seven awards.  She did research on the ground in eastern Europe, through 27 medical archives, to piece together the story of how Chernobyl’s radiation impacted and continues to harm the health of people and the environment in Eastern Europe and far beyond.  Breathtaking in her clarity, precision… and the info.  Not to be missed!

    IMPORTANT NOTE: Nuclear Hotseat is transitioning to a new revised website. This episode is available for the next 24 hours. I encourage you to download the interview now. It might be awhile before this interview gets transferred to become available in the new website.

  2. John Oneill Says:

    Energy security ? Ukraine is currently getting 55% of its power from nuclear, and the 1.5GW of wind in the country has produced nothing all day. (Ukraine also has less than half the carbon footprint per kw/h of Germany, just now.)
    The explosion at Kyshtym was a chemical one, from nitrates and acetate – refining plutonium for bombs is a far dirtier process than just making power, and leaves hundreds of times more waste, for the same amount of mined uranium.
    It’s over twenty years since the last reactor at Chernobyl stopped splitting atoms. After that period, fuel rods don’t need to be kept in a pool, air circulation is enough. Even if they did get to 1,000 C, zirconium wouldn’t burn. It can ignite as a fine powder, but fuel cladding exposed to a 2,000 C blowtorch will not burn.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      The tradeoff calculation for wind or solar’s performance is known ahead of time. The downside is their energy needs to be opportunistic or stored; the upside is that they are waterless and don’t need to buy (or import) fuel. If a wind tower falls down or a solar array gets damaged, you don’t have to evacuate the neighbors or send an international team to assess the problem.

      Thermal plants have their own issues on the grid involving the spin-up and timing of the turbines, and need either siting near a water supply or special extra plumbing to maintain a water circuit. They also have major maintenance and operation overhead whether their energy is needed (or cost-effective) or not.

  3. Jim Torson Says:

    People around the world (especially the news media!) need to get better informed on the potential consequences of nuclear reactors in a war zone.

    Here is an article published in Science magazine that discusses a report from the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

    A nuclear spent fuel fire could result in TRILLION-DOLLAR CONSEQUENCES and millions of people displaced.
    Spent fuel fire on U.S. soil could dwarf impact of Fukushima

  4. John Oneill Says:

    ‘By a stroke of luck, that did not happen.’ After three reactors melted down at Fukushima, without the mass deaths confidently predicted for years by the nucleophobes, concern switched to the spent fuel pool that could, we were told, render Japan, or possibly the whole Pacific region, uninhabitable. The fuel pool never came close to drying out, let alone catching fire. Then there was breathless suspense about whether the fuel could be moved out of the pool – a task fraught with danger, we were told, where one slip could mean disaster. Third time lucky – the fuel was removed uneventfully.
    Now they have another putative disaster to warn about, that supposedly takes nuclear off the table, again, as a solution to climate change. Meanwhile all the extra coal being burnt in Japan and Germany, in South Korea and Taiwan, in Italy, and all the other places where reactors have have been shut down, is killing people every day, and making climate disasters ever more likely.

  5. Jim Torson Says:

    NOTE: This includes a video statement from Rafael Mariano Grossi, International Atomic Energy Agency Director General.

    It also includes a link to a detailed timeline of the plant takeovers from the World Nuclear Association.

    Here’s my comment: When the IAEA Director General is worried, you can be sure that we have a big problem.

    Nuclear Energy Group ‘Gravely’ Worried About Ukraine Plants, Repeats Offer To Help

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