Ukraine nuclear disaster could make swaths of Europe ‘uninhabitable for decades’

The international environmental group Greenpeace warned on Wednesday that Russia’s escalating assault puts Ukraine’s nuclear facilities under serious threat, risking devastation “much worse than the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in 2011”.

“For the first time in history, a major war is being waged in a country with multiple nuclear reactors and thousands of tons of highly radioactive spent fuel.”

In a 12-page analysis, Greenpeace details the unique dangers posed by Russia’s war on Ukraine, which maintains 15 nuclear reactors and is home to Europe’s largest nuclear power complex. This facility, known as the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, is currently surrounded by Russian troops seeking to force their way through a makeshift blockade erected by ordinary Ukrainians on Wednesday.

Greenpeace’s new brief says the Zaporizhzhia plant is particularly vulnerable to an accident or attack resulting from the Russian invasion, which entered its seventh day on Wednesday with no end in sight.

Written by two nuclear experts from Greenpeace, the risk analysis notes that “there have been multiple safety issues with the Zaporizhzhia reactors over the decades, including that these reactors are aging after being designed and built in the 1970s to 1990s.

Greenpeace is particularly concerned about the complex’s vulnerability to blackouts, its storage of spent nuclear fuel and the risks posed by flooding given the facility’s proximity to the massive Dnipro river system. Serious damage to the plant, the group warns, could “render large areas of the European continent, including Russia, uninhabitable for decades”.

In the case of the 2011 Fukushima disaster – in which three nuclear reactors melted down and released radioactive plumes following an earthquake-triggered tsunami – the Japanese facility’s spent nuclear fuel did not catch fire, a near-miss that scientists say should serve as a “wake-up call” for other countries.

The Greenpeace report raises the worrying possibility that disaster will not be averted if the Zaporizhzhia facility is damaged during Russia’s assault on Ukraine, either as a result of an accident or a intentional bombardment:

The amount of spent fuel in each of the pools of the six Zaporizhzhia reactors ranges from 132 to 157 tons in 2017, and in total 855 tons of spent fuel are in the six pools. This is the latest publicly available data that we have access to. It is not possible without precise data to say what the radiological inventory of this spent fuel is, however, in our review of the scientific and technical literature of the last two decades, it appears that the average burnup rate of the nuclear fuel used over the past 20 years in Zaporizhzhia is 44-49GWd/tHM. This is comparable to, and possibly higher than, the nuclear fuel in the Fukushima Daiichi pools.

In the event of loss of cooling and resulting fire in one of the Zaporizhzhia spent fuel pools, the possibility of a very large release of radioactivity would have a devastating effect not only on Ukraine but also on the countries neighbours, including Russia, and potentially, depending on weather conditions and wind direction, over a large part of Europe. Again, it should be emphasized that in the event of such a catastrophic incident, the entire power plant might have to be evacuated and a cascade of similar accidents in the other five pools as well as in the six reactors might take place.

To prevent such a nightmarish scenario from becoming a reality, Greenpeace said Russia must end its war against Ukraine.

“As long as this war continues, the military threat to Ukrainian nuclear power plants will remain. This is one more reason, among many others, why Putin must immediately end his war against Ukraine,” said Jan Vande Putte , radiation protection advisor and nuclear specialist. activist for Greenpeace East Asia and Greenpeace Belgium, said in a statement on Wednesday.

“For the first time in history, a major war is being fought in a country with several nuclear reactors and thousands of tons of highly radioactive spent fuel,” he continued. “The war in southern Ukraine around Zaporizhzhia puts them all at increased risk of a serious accident.”