Red alert in Zaporizhzhia?

Image: Wendelin Jacober


Creating a no-fire zone around Zaporizhzhia would not be enough. We must end the use of nuclear energy.

Amid accusations from both the Russian and Ukrainian sides that the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southeastern Ukraine may soon be detonated or could be deliberately attacked during the country's current war, one absolute truth remains: nuclear power plants are inherently dangerous.

Whether the rhetorical threats are real or not is still up for debate. What is incontestably real is the danger that a nuclear power plant poses. After all, that's why both sides are making these scare threats: because the outcome would be largely deadly. If Zaporizhzhia were a wind farm, it wouldn't even be mentioned.

Every nuclear reactor contains lethal radioactive summation in the core and in the fuel reservoirs into which it has been loaded, and is then densely packed to last over time. The barrels, which also house nuclear waste discharged from the fuel pools, are also a source of danger.

Zaporizhzhia is the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, with at least 2.204 tonnes of highly radioactive waste inside the reactors and spent fuel reservoirs. Depending on the severity of what happens, all of that radioactive fuel could be ignited.

Amidst the confusion and unreliability of any of the pronouncements uttered through the “fog of war”, there remain several unanswered questions that continue to lead to the rise of rumors and speculation:

Was the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, in fact, prepared for detonation? Would certain interests be served by the explosion of this complex? Why is there an exodus of employees from Russian and Ukrainian factories? Will the sabotage of the downstream Kakhovka dam, which resulted in catastrophic flooding, lead to an equally catastrophic loss of available cooling water supplies for the reactors and fuel pools?

Will the backup diesel generators, often used to power essential cooling each time the plant loses connection to the electricity grid, withstand the next crises? Your fuel must also be replenished, but would that potentially be possible in wartime conditions?

None of these threats would make headlines if Zaporizhzhia were the site of a wind farm or large-scale solar array. This perhaps explains the rush now to play down the seriousness of the situation, with claims in the press that a major attack on the plant "wouldn't be as bad as Chornobyl" and that radioactive releases would be minimal and would barely make it beyond nearby lines.

It is an irresponsible concealment of real dangers. The measured assessment of Dr. Edwin Lyman, theorist of Union of Concerned Scientists, confirms that an attack on Zaporizhzhia can indeed be catastrophic.

The graffiti moderator used at Chornobyl undeniably worsened the outcome of that explosion, as well as its aftermath. The graphite fueled the fire and the smoke rose a lot, which further spread the radioactive fallout; she traveled extensively throughout the former Soviet Union and throughout Europe.

The role played by the graffiti moderator in increasing the severity of the Chornobyl disaster has led to an assumption that large fires and explosions in Zaporizhzhia would result in less severe consequences given that the reactors are not of the same design. All six at Zaporizhzhia are Russian VVERs, similar to the Pressurized Water Reactor used in the United States. The one from Chornobyl was the RBMK, considered older.

However, while Zaporizhzhia may be a less primitive design, it is not harmless. Absurdly, these 1980s reactors are described in the press as “more modern”.

If the uranium fuel in Zaporizhzhia's reactors or spent fuel storage pools were to overheat and ignite, it could then heat up the surrounding zirconium plating, which would ignite and burn fiercely like a flame at temperatures too hot to be extinguished. with water.

The resulting chemical reaction would also generate an explosive environment. The heat from the release and any subsequent detonations could rupture concrete structures and then release radioactive gas and fallout into the environment, altering the surrounding climate.

Radioactive fallout could contaminate crucial farmland in Ukraine and potentially Russia as well, should the prevailing winds travel eastwards at the time of the disaster. As we learned from the aftermath of Chornobyl, this is lasting damage that enters the food chain and human bodies and remains harmful in the environment indefinitely, as exemplified by the 1.000 square mile Chornobyl Exclusion Zone.

Those who consume this food can also be affected in a fundamental way. While Europe allows 600 becquerels per kilogram (Bq/kg) of radioactive cesium in food, Ukraine's contaminated food supplies have higher levels. And, after a nuclear disaster, they could be exported to countries with even lower standards, including the US, where the limit is a maximum of 1200 Bq/kg. But will those who consume these foods be counted among the victims of the nuclear disaster, if it occurs? Probably not.

The real numbers of those affected by the Chornobyl disaster will never be known due to institutional omission, misrepresentation of numbers and the absence of records in the countries of the former Soviet Union. Therefore, to suggest that a major nuclear disaster in Zaporizhzhia would be “not as bad as Chornobyl” is very foolish and speculative as it does not look into important details.

The specifics that should be noted are of the type: knowing if the disaster involves hydrogen explosions, as happened in Fukushima; ask whether fires resulting from a bombing or missile strike could further disperse radioactivity. It would also depend on whether all six reactors suffered catastrophic failures, whether all fuel pools were drained, whether they caught fire, and whether storage barrels were ruptured.

The outcome would further depend on which way the wind was blowing at the time of the burst, and furthermore, when and where radioactivity subsequently rained down. Now, all these factors were influential and important at the time of the radioactive fallout from Chornobyl.

If the bursting of Zaporizhzhia were to harm Europe, each side in the conflict would almost certainly hold the other accountable. But, ultimately, the responsibility that everyone must share is to move towards rejecting the continued use of a technology that has the potential to cause such disastrous consequences for humanity.

Nuclear power is the most dangerous way to boil water. It is unnecessary and expensive; moreover, it is an obstacle to the development of renewable energies. It is intrinsically linked to the desire for – and development of – nuclear weapons, the use of which could be the other lethal outcome of this war.

Zaporizhzhia is in the news almost every day. The propaganda may be deliberately alarmist, but the basis for the alarm is very real, otherwise it would not be in the headlines. It's time to make sense of it all. Creating a no-fire zone around Zaporizhzhia would not be enough. We must end the use of nuclear energy.

*Linda Pentz Gunter specializes in nuclear energy; editor and curator of Beyond Nuclear

Translation: Eleutério FS Prado.

Originally published on the portal counter punch.

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