28 March 2022: Several nuclear facilities have been hit by Russian military strikes in Ukraine since the invasion began: a nuclear research facility called the Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology; two radioactive waste storage sites; the Chernobyl nuclear site (which no longer has operating reactors); and the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. Thankfully there have not been any significant radiation releases yet.
Friends of the Earth is compiling information on the nuclear threats in Ukraine and posting information and updates on this webpage – see below.
Historical precedents: There is a history of nuclear facilities being targeted, mostly in the Middle East and mostly involving research reactor facilities suspected of being used for nuclear weapons proliferation. See this FoE webpage for details and see this University of Maryland ‘Nuclear Facility Attack Database‘.
Some useful sources of information on nuclear threats in Ukraine:
Nuclear facilities targeted in Russia’s war on Ukraine
This article was written on March 11 article and is being regularly updated. Last update March 14. Article and updates compiled by firstname.lastname@example.org, national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia.
“I cannot say what could be done to completely protect [nuclear] installations from attack, except to build them on Mars.” ‒ Head of the Ukrainian nuclear regulator SNRIU, 2015.
- Comparing a worst-case scenario with the conflict in Ukraine
- Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant — details of the attack
- NPR report on the Zaporizhzhia attack
- Zaporizhzhia attack — worldwide condemnation and risks
- Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant as a military base
- Control of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant
- Zaporizhzhia staff
- No independent regulatory oversight of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant
- Zaporizhzhia power supply
- Zaporizhzhia communications
- Nuclear waste at Zaporizhzhia
- Chernobyl attack and staff-hostages
- Chernobyl ‒ lack of regulatory oversight
- Chernobyl ‒ communications
- Chernobyl ‒ power supply lost then restored
- Why has Russia seized control of nuclear power plants?
- Radioactive waste storage and disposal sites in Ukraine
- Neutron Source at the Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology
- Other nuclear facilities / nuclear theft and smuggling risks
- Breakdown of nuclear regulation
- Inability of IAEA and other international organisations to reduce nuclear risks in Ukraine
- Nuclear safety and security upgrades in Ukraine prior to the 2022 invasion
- Nuclear warfare
Several nuclear facilities in Ukraine have been attacked by the Russian military over the past fortnight: a nuclear research facility at Kharkiv; two radioactive waste storage sites; the Chernobyl nuclear site (which no longer has operating reactors); and the operating Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.
Thankfully there have not been any significant radiation releases … yet.
The operating nuclear power plants pose by far the greatest risks. Ukraine has 15 power reactors located at four sites. Eight of the reactors are currently operating.
The Zaporizhzhia plant – the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, with six reactors — is under the control of the Russian military. At least one reactor is operating at each of the other three plants. The Russian military might fight to take control of these plants over the coming days and weeks.
IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi has repeatedly warned about the grave risks. He said on March 2:
“The situation in Ukraine is unprecedented and I continue to be gravely concerned. It is the first time a military conflict is happening amidst the facilities of a large, established nuclear power program.
“I have called for restraint from all measures or actions that could jeopardise the security of nuclear and other radioactive material, and the safe operation of any nuclear facilities in Ukraine, because any such incident could have severe consequences, aggravating human suffering and causing environmental harm.”
Grossi noted a 2009 decision by the IAEA General Conference that affirmed that “any armed attack on and threat against nuclear facilities devoted to peaceful purposes constitutes a violation of the principles of the United Nations Charter, international law and the Statute of the Agency.”
Comparing a worst-case scenario with the conflict in Ukraine
It’s worthwhile comparing a worst-case scenario with the current situation in Ukraine. A worst-case scenario would involve war between two (or more) even-matched nations with a heavy reliance on nuclear power. War would drag on for years between evenly-matched nations. The heavy reliance on nuclear power would make it difficult or impossible to shut down power reactors.
Sooner or later, a deliberate or accidental military strike would likely hit a reactor – or the reactor’s essential power and cooling water supply would be disrupted. Any ‘gentleman’s agreement’ not to strike nuclear power plants would be voided and multiple Chernobyl- or Fukushima-scale disasters could unfold concurrently – in addition to all the non-nuclear horrors of war.
In the current conflict, the nations are not evenly matched and the fighting is limited to one country. There won’t be large-scale warfare dragging on for years – although low-level conflict might persist for years, as has been the case since Russia’s 2014 invasion of eastern Ukraine and Crimea.
Ukraine does share one component of a worst-case scenario: its heavy reliance on nuclear power. Fifteen reactors at four sites generate 51.2 percent of the country’s electricity. It is one of only three countries reliant on nuclear power for more than half of its electricity supply.
Power reactors have continued to operate throughout the conflict. In the weeks prior to the February 24 invasion, 0-3 reactors were disconnected. The number rose to five on February 26 and has remained at 6-7 since then. Daily updates from the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine (SNRIU) list which reactors are operating and which are disconnected.
Even before the Russian invasion, Ukraine’s reactor fleet was ageing, its nuclear industry was corrupt, regulation was inadequate, and nuclear security measures left much room for improvement.
Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant — details of the attack
The Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant is home to six reactors and lies near one of Russia’s main invasion routes, north of Crimea. The plant was contentious long before the recent invasion due to mismanagement and the ageing of the Soviet-era reactors. A 2017 Austrian government assessment of Zaporizhzhia concluded that: “The documents provided and available lead to the conclusion that a high probability exists for accident scenarios to develop into a severe accident that threatens the integrity of the containment and results in a large release.”
The Russian military assault on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant on March 4 damaged the “reactor compartment building” of reactor #1, two artillery shells hit the dry storage facility containing spent nuclear fuel (without causing significant damage), a fire severely damaged a training building, and a laboratory building was damaged.
SNRIU reported that the reactor #6 transformer had been taken out of service and was undergoing emergency repair after damage to its cooling system was detected following the attack.
The European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group said that it is “extremely disconcerting” that “damage has been reported to have occurred to unit 1 building, the gallery and grid infrastructure.”
Two people were injured in the fire, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said, while Ukraine’s nuclear utility Energoatom said that three Ukrainian soldiers were killed and two wounded.
SNRIU reported on March 11: “The ZNPP personnel continues carrying out walkdowns to detect and dispose of hazardous items that appeared on the site during the shelling and capture of the Zaporizhzhia NPP by Russian troops. The SNRIU emphasizes that any explosive items at the NPP pose a direct threat not only to the safety of personnel but also to the NPP in general!”
NPR report on the Zaporizhzhia attack
NPR reported on March 11:
“Last week’s assault by Russian forces on the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant was far more dangerous than initial assessments suggested, according to an analysis by NPR of video and photographs of the attack and its aftermath. A thorough review of a four-hour, 21-minute security camera video of the attack reveals that Russian forces repeatedly fired heavy weapons in the direction of the plant’s massive reactor buildings, which housed dangerous nuclear fuel. Photos show that an administrative building directly in front of the reactor complex was shredded by Russian fire. And a video from inside the plant shows damage and a possible Russian shell that landed less than 250 feet from the Unit 2 reactor building.
“The security camera footage also shows Russian troops haphazardly firing rocket-propelled grenades into the main administrative building at the plant and turning away Ukrainian firefighters even as a fire raged out of control in a nearby training building. …
“In fact, the training building took multiple strikes, and it was hardly the only part of the site to take fire from Russian forces. The security footage supports claims by Ukraine’s nuclear regulator of damage at three other locations: the Unit 1 reactor building, the transformer at the Unit 6 reactor and the spent fuel pad, which is used to store nuclear waste. It also shows ordnance striking a high-voltage line outside the plant. The IAEA says two such lines were damaged in the attack.
“”This video is very disturbing,” says Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists. While the types of reactors used at the plant are far safer than the one that exploded in Chernobyl in 1986, the Russian attack could have triggered a meltdown similar to the kind that struck Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in 2011, he warns.
“It’s completely insane to subject a nuclear plant to this kind of an assault,” Lyman says. …
“Much of the fire was directed toward the training center and the plant’s main administrative building. But at various points in the battle, Russian forces lobbed rounds deep into the nuclear complex in the direction of the reactor buildings. …
“The afternoon after the battle, the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine reported that the reactor compartment of Unit 1, which lay in the direction of some of the Russian fire, had sustained damage. It also reported that two shells had landed in an area used to hold old nuclear waste that lay to the north of the battle. Later statements by the regulator and the IAEA reported further damage to the power transformer for the Unit 6 reactor.
“At one point, the video shows Russian forces directing their firepower northward toward Unit 6 and the spent fuel area, corroborating those reports. …
“By 2:25 a.m. on March 4, the fighting was largely over. Reinforcements arrived, including a Russian-built MRAP armored vehicle with a gray paint job resembling those used by the Russian National Guard.
“Firefighting vehicles arrived at around 2:50 a.m., likely from the nearby town of Enerhodar. But even as the fire raged in the training building, Russian forces apparently forced the firefighters to turn around.
“In the days after the assault, Energoatom, the Ukrainian state-owned utility that ran Zaporizhzhia, released several photos showing damage to the site on the social media platform Telegram. Most notably, a short video shows what might be a Russian artillery shell on an elevated walkway leading toward the Unit 2 reactor building. …
“The location of the possible shell and the damage is within just a few hundred feet of the Unit 2 reactor building, says Tom Bielefeld, an independent nuclear security analyst based in Germany.
“Bielefeld says that the walkway also runs alongside a building used to handle radioactive waste from the plant. That building is not as hardened, or reinforced against attacks and other catastrophic events, as the nuclear reactor buildings are. Had it been struck, there would have been the potential for a localized release of radioactive contamination. …
“Bielefeld says he is deeply worried about the prospects of firefights at Ukraine’s three remaining nuclear power stations. At Rivne Nuclear Power Plant in the country’s north, the plant’s director, Pavlo Pavlyshyn, told NPR that Ukrainian forces were prepared to mount a defense should Russian troops try to take the plant. And Russian forces are now advancing toward a second plant, the South Ukraine Nuclear Power Station.”
Zaporizhzhia attack — worldwide condemnation and risks
The military assault on Zaporizhzhia drew worldwide condemnation.
In a March 15 letter, EU Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson said: “The international nuclear community adopted Resolution GOV/2022-17 in the IAEA Board of Governors, condemning Russia’s ill-considered, violent seizure of control of the Chornobyl site, and calling on Russia to cease all such violent actions at nuclear sites, warning that activities of this type raise the risk of a nuclear accident. However, Russia did not heed this warning and proceeded to violently and recklessly take control of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, inflicting damage at the site.”
To say that the attack was reckless would be an understatement. Dr Edwin Lyman from the Union of Concerned Scientists summarised the risks:
“There are a number of events that could trigger a worst-case scenario involving a reactor core or spent fuel pool located in a war zone: An accidental – or intentional – strike could directly damage one or more reactors. An upstream dam failure could flood a reactor downstream. A fire could disable plant electrical systems. Personnel under duress could make serious mistakes. The bottom line: Any extended loss of power that interrupted cooling system operations that personnel could not contain has the potential to cause a Fukushima-like disaster.”
Dr Lyman notes that a Chernobyl-style catastrophe — a massive steam explosion and long-duration fire — is implausible, but that the “consequences of a nuclear accident at one of the four operational Ukrainian nuclear plants could be similar to that of Fukushima.”
The risks of the military attack were all the greater because one of the six reactors at Zaporizhzhia was operating at the time. SNRIU listed three reactors as operating on March 3 at 8am local time. The military attack began at 1am on March 4. SNRIU listed one reactor as operating on March 4 at 8am local time, with two reactors listed as operating from March 6, onwards.
Was Ukraine operating reactors because the electricity they produced was absolutely essential? Was the Ukrainian government hoping that continuing to operate reactors would minimise the risk of a military attack on the nuclear plant? Are Zaporizhzhia reactors currently being operated under the direction of the Russian military for the same reason — to deter any attempt by Ukrainian forces to take back the site? How will the lessons learned from the Zaporizhzhia experience play out at the other three nuclear power plants?
Number of reactors operating or in shutdown at Zaporizhzhia
SNRIU said on March 18 that two reactors were operating, two were under repair (units 1 and 6), and the other two were in shutdown mode.
Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant as a military base
Currently, Russian troops are using the Zaporizhzhia plant as a military base, presumably on the assumption that it won’t be attacked by Ukrainian forces. Energoatom said on March 9 that there were 50 units of heavy Russian equipment, 400 military staff and “lots of explosives and weapons” at the Zaporizhzhia plant. SNRIU said the Russian military is turning the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant “into a military facility, deploying heavy weapons in this territory to blackmail the entire world.”
Control of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant
Reuters reported on March 11/12: “Russian officials have attempted to enter and take full operational control of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the head of Ukrainian state nuclear company Energoatom said on Friday. Energoatom chief Petro Kotin said Russian forces had told the plant’s Ukrainian staff that the plant now belonged to Russian state nuclear company Rosatom after its capture last week. Ten officials from Rosatom, including two senior engineers, then unsuccessfully attempted to enter the plant and take control of operations, he said in a televised interview. “On the territory (of the plant) there are around 500 Russian soldiers with automatic weapons … our staff are in an extremely bad psychological state,” Kotin said.”
SNRIU said on March 12 that Zaporizhzhia staff deny information that is currently circulating in the media about the nuclear plant’s transition into the ownership of the Rosatom Corporation.
SNRIU said on March 22 that “the operation of the nuclear power plant is carried out exclusively by the staff of the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, there is a constant rotation of the staff.”
Ukrainian staff staff are currently operating the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant under Russian control: any action, including measures related to the technical operation of the reactors, requires approval from the Russian commander.
Grossi noted that the arrangement violates one of the seven indispensable pillars of nuclear safety and security, that “operating staff must be able to fulfil their safety and security duties and have the capacity to make decisions free of undue pressure”.
These are the Seven Pillars of the IAEA Framework:
- The physical integrity of the facilities – whether it is the reactors, fuel ponds, or radioactive waste stores – must be maintained;
- All safety and security systems and equipment must be fully functional at all times;
- The operating staff must be able to fulfil their safety and security duties and have the capacity to make decisions free of undue pressure;
- There must be secure off-site power supply from the grid for all nuclear sites;
- There must be uninterrupted logistical supply chains and transportation to and from the sites;
- There must be effective on-site and off-site radiation monitoring systems and emergency preparedness and response measures; and
- There must be reliable communications with the regulator and others.
Dr Najmedin Meshkati, a nuclear safety expert at the University of Southern California, commented:
“War adversely affects the safety culture in a number of ways. Operators are stressed and fatigued and may be scared to death to speak out if something is going wrong. Then there is the maintenance of a plant, which may be compromised by lack of staff or unavailability of spare parts. Governance, regulation and oversight – all crucial for the safe running of a nuclear industry – are also disrupted, as is local infrastructure, such as the capability of local firefighters. In normal times you might have been able to extinguish the fire at Zaporizhzhia in five minutes. But in war, everything is harder.”
Zaporizhzhia staff are operating in three daily shifts according to SNRIU. There are problems with food availability and supply, SNRIU said. Ukrainian energy minister Herman Galushchenko said managers at the nuclear plant were being forced to record an address to be used as propaganda. “The employees of the station are physically and psychologically exhausted,” Galushchenko said.
The World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO) said on March 10 that “there cannot be interference of any kind with Ukrainian member operators’ ability to safely perform their work”. WANO’s concerns include: staff not getting proper rest; difficulties in providing supplies to power plants; risks to power supplies and availability of fuel supplies for long-term use of emergency diesel generators; external pressures jeopardising decision-making and disrupted communication with the regulator and support organisations like the IAEA and WANO. WANO said it supports the “immediate establishment of a nuclear safety framework at all nuclear facilities in Ukraine that ensures that the seven pillars of nuclear safety and security are achieved and maintained”.
Forbes senior contributor Craig Hooper writes: “It seems unlikely that Russia has mobilised 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.”
SNRIU said on March 22: “The ZNPP personnel and their families are under constant psychological pressure due to the presence of hostile military occupiers on the NPP site and in the satellite city, as well as a large number of military vehicles. Permanent stressful conditions, shortage of food and medicine increase the likelihood of personnel errors, which can lead to emergencies/accidents and directly affect the NPP safety.”
SNRIU said on March 26: “The Zaporizhzhia NPP and Enerhodar city are occupied by the Russian military units since 4 March 2022. Apart from the aggressor-country military, representatives of the State Atomic Energy Corporation of the Russian Federation “Rosatom” are illegally present at the ZNPP site for a long time.”
No independent regulatory oversight of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant
SNRIU reported on March 11: “Independent regulatory oversight over nuclear and radiation safety directly at the ZNPP site is currently not carried out due to the potential danger to life and health of the SNRIU state inspectors, as well as due to the damage to inspectors’ workplaces as a result of shelling and seizure of the Zaporizhzhia NPP by the occupiers.”
SNRIU said on March 22: “Regulatory supervision of nuclear and radiation security directly on the site of the Zaporizhzhya NPP is impossible.”
Zaporizhzhia power supply
The IAEA reported on March 9 that the Zaporizhzhia site has four high-voltage (750 kV) offsite power lines plus an additional one on standby, but that it had been informed by the Ukrainian operator that two lines have been damaged and thus there are now two operating lines plus one on standby. The operator said that power requirements could be maintained with one line. “Nevertheless, this is another example of where the safety pillar to secure off-site power supply from the grid for all nuclear sites has been compromised,” Grossi said.
If grid power is lost, the adequacy of backup power generators to maintain essential cooling of reactors and spent fuel will depend on factors such as the integrity of the diesel fuel store, and the viability of securing further diesel fuel. The inability to run generators was one of the causes of the Fukushima disaster.
Dr Meshkati said: “My biggest worry is that Ukraine suffers from a sustained power grid failure. The likelihood of this increases during a conflict, because pylons may come down under shelling or gas power plants might get damaged and cease to operate. And it is unlikely that Russian troops themselves will have fuel to keep these emergency generators going — they don’t seem to have enough fuel to run their own personnel carriers.”
The adequacy of backup generators at Zaporizhzhia has long been a concern as detailed in a March 2 Greenpeace International report. In 2020, the Ukrainian NGO EcoAction received information from nuclear industry whistleblowers about problems with the generators at Zaporizhzhia, including a lack of spare parts. In the same year, the regulator SNRIU reported on a generator malfunction. An upgrade of the generators was due to be complete by 2017 but the completion date has been pushed back to 2023, i.e. it remains incomplete.
It’s not easy to work out how many power lines have been operational and how many have been disconnected at any particular point in time. Here are some reports in chronological order tohelp make sense of the situation:
SNRIU said on March 17 that two of the power lines were connected (and two disconnected) and thus the power of the two operating reactors was “reduced”.
SNRIU said on March 19 that one of high-voltage lines was restored and that two out of four lines were now operational. The restored power line was out of service from March 16 to March 18, SNRIU sad.
SNRIU said on March 19: “Three of the four 750 kV high-voltage lines (Zaporizhzhya, South Donbas, and Kakhovka) were damaged due to hostilities in the region. In addition, on 17 March 2022, in the period from 14:00 to 20:00, as a result of damage, the ZNPP inductive coupling line (750/330 kV) with the Zaporizhzhya thermal power plant was disconnected. This line can be used by the ZNPP to ensure power supply to the process systems of power units and power output in the event of failure of all four regular high-voltage lines. After eliminating the detected damage, the line operability was restored.” SNRIU made very similar comments on March 18, adding that: “Due to hostilities in the region and the seizure of the ZNPP site and adjacent territories by the Russian occupation forces, there is a potential threat of the ZNPP blackout. According to the safety analysis reports of the ZNPP power units, the complete loss of external power supply to a power unit is the initiating event of a design basis accident.”
So it seems that at one stage, Zaporizhzhia lost three out of four power lines and also lost the standby power line. Or perhaps, given ongoing efforts to repair damaged lines, the worst situation involved the loss of three out of the five lines (including the standby line). The IAEA said on March 19 that three out of five power lines (four lines plus the standby line) had been disconnected in recent weeks. And the IAEA said on March 18 that two power lines were operating, including the standby line, with three lines disconnected. The IAEA added that a power line had been repaired on the same day it was damaged. On balance, it seems likely that two out of five lines were available at all times.
As of March 23, it seems that two out of four power lines are operational and the standby line is available. The IAEA said on March 21 that it was informed by SNRIU that the two operating reactors at Zaporizhzhia continued to operate at two thirds of their maximum capacity after the repair last week of two power lines, one off-site and one on-site. The IAEA said that Zaporizhzhia now has three high voltage (750 kV) off-site power lines available, including one on standby.
SNRIU said that its nuclear safety inspectors are not allowed to access the Zaporizhzhia plant due to the Russian troops deployed in the area.
SNRIU said on March 6/7 that phone lines, email and fax were not functioning at Zaporizhzhia, with only some poor quality mobile phone service possible, so “reliable information from the site cannot be obtained through normal channels of communication”.
Grossi said that the “deteriorating situation regarding vital communications” between the regulator and the nuclear plant is a “source of deep concern, especially during an armed conflict that may jeopardise the country’s nuclear facilities at any time. Reliable communications between the regulator and the operator are a critical part of overall nuclear safety and security.”
The IAEA said on March 11: “It was not currently possible to deliver necessary spare parts, equipment and specialized personnel to the site to carry out planned repairs, and maintenance activities at Unit 1 had been reduced to the minimum level required by the plant operational procedures.”
Nuclear waste at Zaporizhzhia
A report by Greenpeace International nuclear specialists notes that as of 2017, Zaporizhzhia had 2,204 tons of spent fuel in storage at the site – 855 tonnes in the spent fuel pools within the reactor buildings, and 1,349 tonnes in a dry storage facility.
The spent fuel pools contain far more radioactivity than the dry store. Without active cooling, the pools risk overheating and evaporating to a point where the fuel metal cladding could ignite and release much of the radioactive inventory. Damage to the reservoirs which supply cooling water to Zaporizhzhia could disrupt cooling of reactors and spent fuel.
The Guardian reported in 2015 that the dry store at Zaporizhzhia is sub-standard, with more than 3,000 spent nuclear fuel rods in metal casks within concrete containers in an open-air yard close to a perimeter fence. Neil Hyatt, a professor of radioactive waste management at Sheffield University, told the Guardian that a dry storage container with a resilient roof and in-house ventilation would offer greater protection from missile bombardment.
Chernobyl attack and staff-hostages
No reactors have operated at the Chernobyl site since the year 2000 but the site still has a large quantity of spent nuclear fuel, as well as the radioactive mess left by the 1986 disaster in reactor #4.
The Russian military took control of the Chernobyl site on February 24. Radiation levels were elevated due to heavy military equipment disturbing the contaminated dust around the site.
Russian occupiers have kept around 210 plant operators and guards at the Chernobyl site since February 24 without a new shift to relieve them. A relative of one worker told the BBC that the Russian military was willing to let them swap shifts, but that they could not guarantee their safety on the journey home, nor of workers travelling to take their place. “All the staff are super exhausted and desperate. They doubt that anyone cares about them. Right now they don’t see anyone doing anything to rescue them,” the relative said.
According to the Ukrainian government, workers are being subjected “to psychological pressure and moral exhaustion” with “limited opportunities to communicate, move, and carry out full-fledged maintenance and repair work.”
SNRIU said on March 17: “Given the psychological, moral, and physical fatigue of the personnel, as well as the absence of day-time and repair staff, maintenance and repair activities of equipment important to the safety of the facilities at the Chornobyl NPP site are not carried out, which may lead to the reduction of its reliability, which in turn can lead to equipment failures, emergencies, and accidents.”
The IAEA said on March 20: “The difficult staffing situation at the Chornobyl NPP over the past few weeks has put at risk one of seven indispensable nuclear safety pillars that he outlined earlier this month, which states that “operating staff must be able to fulfil their safety and security duties and have the capacity to make decisions free of undue pressure”.”
SNRIU said on March 20: “From the very beginning of the Russian military aggression against Ukraine, all Chornobyl NPP facilities, and facilities located in the Exclusion Zone are under the control of the country’s military aggressor. For 24 days in a row, the Chornobyl NPP personnel has been courageously and heroically performing their functions without rotation to ensure the safe operation of these facilities. Given the psychological, moral, and physical fatigue of the personnel, as well as the absence of day-time and repair staff, maintenance and repair activities of equipment important to the safety of the facilities located at the Chornobyl NPP site are not carried out, which may lead to the reduction of its reliability, and result in equipment failures, emergencies, and accidents.”
The IAEA said on March 21 that Ukraine informed the IAEA “that the long-delayed rotation of technical staff at the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) was completed today, enabling them to go home and rest for the first time since Russian forces took control of the site last month”.
The IAEA added: “Ukraine’s regulatory authority said about half of the outgoing shift of technical staff left the site of the 1986 accident yesterday and the rest followed today, with the exception of thirteen staff members who declined to rotate. Most Ukrainian guards also remained at the site, it added. Damaged roads and bridges had complicated the transportation of staff to the nearby city of Slavutych, the regulator said. The staff had been at Chornobyl since the day before Russian forces took control of the site on 24 February. They left after handing over operations to newly arrived Ukrainian colleagues who replaced them after nearly four weeks. The new work shift also comes from Slavutych and includes two supervisors instead of the usual one to ensure that there is back-up available on the site, the regulator said. An agreement had been reached on how to organize future staff rotations at the NPP, where various radioactive waste management facilities are located, it said.”
SNRIU said on March 22:
“According to the updated information received from the Chornobyl NPP, on 20 March 2022, it became possible to organize only a partial rotation of operational personnel who remained on the occupied site territory since 24 February 2022. The day-time and repair personnel, as well as personnel of contractors, is absent on the Chornobyl NPP site.
“The information received from the Chornobyl NPP on the on-site safety parameters and the radiation situation state indicates a trend of the steady deterioration of a number of indicators. The occupier continues to grossly violate the radiation safety requirements and strict access control procedures at the NPP and in the Exclusion Zone, which leads to deterioration of the radiation situation at the plant and in the Exclusion Zone and contributes to the spread of radioactive contamination outside the Exclusion Zone.
“Scheduled activities, maintenance, and repair of systems and equipment of the Chornobyl NPP facilities, which must be performed by day-time personnel, are not carried out due to the occupation since 24 February 2022. In addition, the activities performed with the involvement of contractors’ personnel are not carried out.
“It needs to be recalled that this situation has already led to the impossibility to restore the operation of individual neutron flux sensors, gamma radiation dose rate and radiation contamination sensors, further non-fulfillment of repair activities may lead to failures of other systems and components important to safety. The inoperability of the equipment complicates carrying out full control over the criticality and a number of radiation parameters in one of the Shelter premises.”
SNRIU said on March 24:
“The information received from the Chornobyl NPP indicates that the operational personnel maintain the safety parameters of the facilities at the NPP site within the standard values. At the same time, the Russian military continue to grossly violate the radiation safety requirements and strict access control procedures at the NPP and in the Exclusion Zone, which leads to deterioration of the radiation situation at the site.
“Moreover, right now the enemy is trying to seize the Slavutych city and is conducting shelling of the checkpoints. Personnel working at the Chornobyl NPP facilities, as well as at facilities and enterprises located in the Exclusion Zone live in Slavutych.
“The current situation endangers the lives and health of Chornobyl NPP employees and their families, creates significant psychological and moral pressure on operational personnel ensuring nuclear and radiation safety of the Chornobyl NPP facilities, and makes it impossible to ensure the personnel rotation.”
SNRIU said on March 26: “According to the Chornobyl NPP management, the Slavutych city has been also seized by Russian invaders, and enemy military vehicles are deployed in the city. This endangers the lives and health of all city residents. As is commonly known, Slavutych is the residence city of personnel working at the Chornobyl NPP facilities, and at facilities and enterprises located in the Exclusion Zone, as well as of members of their families, which in turn creates a significant psychological and moral pressure on the operational personnel now ensuring the nuclear and radiation safety of facilities at the Chornobyl NPP site.”
The IAEA said on March 26:
“There has been no staff rotation at the NPP for nearly a week now, the regulator said. Slavutych is located outside the Exclusion Zone that was set up around the Chornobyl NPP after the 1986 accident. Russian forces took control of the NPP on 24 February. Earlier this week, Ukraine’s regulatory authority said that Russian shelling of checkpoints in Slavutych prevented technical staff of the Chornobyl NPP from travelling to and from the site. In an update this morning, the regulator said Slavutych was surrounded. A few hours later, it cited Chornobyl NPP management as confirming media reports that the city had been seized.
“The regulator said the last staff rotation was on 20-21 March, when a new shift of technical personnel arrived from Slavutych to replace colleagues who had worked at the Chornobyl NPP since the day before the Russian military entered the site, where radioactive waste management facilities are located. There was “no information when or whether” a new change of work shift would take place, it said.”
Chernobyl – forest fires in the Exclusion Zone
SNRIU said on March 21 that there are increased radioactivity levels in and beyond the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone as a result of forest fires in radioactively contaminated areas, and that extinguishing the fires is impossible as a result of the occupation of the Exclusion Zone by Russian troops. SNRIU said the areas of fire between 11 and 18 March 2022 were mainly in the western and central parts of the Exclusion Zone. SNRIU said that the automated radiation control system in the Exclusion Zone is not working and thus there is a lack of data on the current state of radiation pollution. SNRIU said: “Forest fires in the cold season are an atypical phenomenon for the Exclusion Zone. There is a high probability that in the spring and summer the intensity of forest fires in the Exclusion Zone may reach the maximum possible limits, which will lead (in the absence of any firefighting measures) to almost complete burning of radioactively contaminated forests in the Exclusion Zone and, consequently, to significant deterioration of radiation in Ukraine and throughout Europe.”
The IAEA said on March 23:
“Earlier today, Ukraine’s regulatory authority informed the IAEA that firefighters were trying to extinguish wildfires near the Chornobyl NPP, an area which has seen such outbreaks also in previous years. The fire brigade from the town of Chornobyl has extinguished four fires, but there are still ongoing fires. The local fire station does not currently have access to the electricity grid, the regulator said. In the meantime, the station is relying on diesel generators for power, for which fuel is required, it added. The NPP site, where radioactive waste management facilities are located, continues to have off-site power available.
“The regulator informed the IAEA last week that it was closely monitoring the situation in the Chornobyl NPP Exclusion Zone ahead of the annual “fire season” when spontaneous fires often occur in the area, still contaminated by radioactive material from the accident 36 years ago next month. Russian forces took control of the site on 24 February.
“In today’s update, it said “fire events” were registered in the area of the Chornobyl NPP’s Exclusion Zone. In the Exclusion Zone, the regulator said radiation measurements are not currently being performed. It said slight increases in caesium air concentrations had been detected in Kyiv and at two NPP sites west of Chornobyl, but the regulator told the IAEA that they did not pose significant radiological concerns. The IAEA is continuing to engage with the regulator to obtain further information about the fire situation.”
The IAEA said on March 24: “Earlier today, the regulator also informed the IAEA that it does not expect wildfires burning in the vicinity of the Chornobyl NPP to cause any significant radiological concern, a day after the country’s regulator said Ukrainian firefighters were trying to extinguish blazes in the area. Ukraine’s regulatory authority said radiation measurements were currently not carried out in the Chornobyl NPP Exclusion Zone. But the regulator still assessed the radiological risks as low based on years of experience of such fires and detailed data on the locations and amounts of residual radioactive contamination in the soil following the 1986 accident.”
Beyond Nuclear said on March 23:
“Areas contaminated by the ruined reactor, including the red forest, have been ablaze a number of times: 1992, 2002, 2008, 2010, 2015 and 2018. Under ever more extreme climate conditions, wildfires will get larger and more frequent.
“In 2020, a forest fire, reportedly the result of arson, set the Chernobyl Zone ablaze, coming within one kilometer of the facility, which stores radioactive waste not only from normal reactor operation, but also the ruined fuel from the 1986 meltdown and explosion.
“But the Chernobyl site itself doesn’t have to catch fire to set aloft the radioactivity trapped in the area. During just three fires in the Zone in the early 2000s, eight percent of the original cesium 137 released was redistributed. And during the 2020 fire, radiation levels increased to 16 times higher than they had been previously.
“Each time a fire ignites, it threatens people within and around the Zone, particularly firefighters, who have exhibited acute radiation exposure symptoms such as a tingling of the skin, and may be exposed to more radiation than the current Chernobyl workers themselves.”
Chernobyl ‒ lack of regulatory oversight
SNRIU said on March 11: “Regulatory control over the state of nuclear and radiation safety at the Chornobyl NPP site and in the Exclusion Zone, as well as control over nuclear materials at the enterprise is impossible to exercise.” SNRIU has repeated those comments in many updates, e.g. on March 24.
Chernobyl ‒ communications and automated monitoring
The IAEA reported on March 11 that SNRIU lost communications with the Chernobyl site on 10 March and therefore cannot provide information to the IAEA about the radiological monitoring at the facility.
Grossi said on March 9 that in recent days the IAEA has lost remote data transmission from its safeguards systems at Chernobyl and also the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant.
SNRIU said on March 17: “The operation of the Exclusion Zone automated radiation monitoring system has not been restored up to now. There is no information on the real situation at the Chornobyl NPP site, as there is no contact with the NPP personnel present directly at the site for the 22nd day in a row without rotation.”
Chernobyl ‒ power supply lost then restored
The European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group warned on March 6 about the “current fragility of the electrical supplies to the site, with only one supply line out of three available and back-up diesel power having sufficient fuel supplies for only 48 hours”.
The situation worsened with the loss of power from a 750 kV high-voltage line to the area on March 9, thus disconnecting the Chernobyl site entirely from the grid. On-site emergency diesel generators were activated “to power systems important to safety”.
Energoatom said a loss of power made “it impossible to control the nuclear and radiation safety parameters at the facilities”, adding that repairs to restore the area’s power supply could not happen at the moment because of “combat operations in the region”.
Whether the spent fuel at Chernobyl is at risk due to the loss of power is debated. Energoatom said there are about 20,000 spent fuel assemblies at Chernobyl that could not be kept cool during a power outage and warned of the release of radioactive substances into the environment. The IAEA is less concerned, saying that it saw “no critical impact on safety” due to the low heat load and the volume of cooling water.
SNRIU said on March 10 that in the event of a total blackout, including loss of emergency power supply, staff responsible for spent fuel pools will lose the possibility of remote monitoring of the radiological situation in the storage facility rooms; remote control of the water level and temperature in the cooling pool; makeup of the cooling pool and its water treatment; fire alarm monitoring; and maintenance of required temperature in spent fuel buildings.
The IAEA said on March 10: “If emergency power was also to be lost, the regulator said it would still be possible for staff to monitor the water level and temperature of the spent fuel pool. But they would carry out this work under worsening radiation safety conditions due to a lack of ventilation at the facility. They would also not be able to follow operational radiation safety procedures.”
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said that Russia must observe a temporary ceasefire to enable repairs at the Chernobyl plant.
Energoatom CEO Petro Kotin said on March 10 that workers at transmission system operator Ukrenergo were ready to repair and restore the power supply, but an agreement was needed on a safe “corridor” for them to carry out the work.
The IAEA said in a March 11 update that it has been informed by Ukraine that technicians have started repairing damaged power lines in an attempt to restore external electricity supplies to the site of the Chernobyl plant that were entirely cut earlier in the week. The IAEA continued: “Ukraine’s regulatory authority said work that began on the evening of 10 March had succeeded in repairing one section, but off-site electrical power was still down, indicating there was still damage in other places. The repair efforts would continue despite the difficult situation outside the NPP site, it added. Emergency diesel generators have been providing back-up power to the site since 9 March, and the regulator has reported that additional fuel had been delivered to the facility.” Grossi said: “From day to day, we are seeing a worsening situation at the Chornobyl NPP, especially for radiation safety, and for the staff managing the facility under extremely difficult and challenging circumstances.”
The World Nuclear Association reported on March 11: “SNRIU said that the loss of communications meant the situation at Chernobyl was “currently unknown” but it said “an additional supply of diesel fuel for diesel generators ensuring emergency power supply to the spent nuclear fuel storage facilities (ISF-1 and ISF-2), as well as to the New Safe Confinement above the Shelter, was delivered to the plant site. Attempts to restore the external power supply to the site are in progress.”
SNRIU said on March 17: “According to the information received from the Chornobyl NPP management, the power supply of all facilities located on the Chornobyl NPP site was restored on 14 March 2022.”
The IAEA noted on March 19 that off-site grid power had been lost for five days before being restored on March 14.
The World Nuclear Association said on March 15 that diesel generators had been providing back-up electricity to the site and that: “The damaged power line was initially fixed on 13 March, but Ukraine’s energy company Ukrenergo said it was damaged again “by the occupying forces” before the power supply could be fully restored. However, further work meant that the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine (SNRIU) was able to inform the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) later on 14 March that external power “had again been restored and that staff at the Chernobyl NPP had restarted operations to reconnect the NPP to the grid”.”
Rivne nuclear power plant
The IAEA said on March 24:
“It also emerged on 24 March that Russia’s mission to the IAEA said that four Rosatom workers had been detained at the Rivne nuclear power plant, where they had delivered a fresh shipment of nuclear fuel on 23 February, the day before the Russian attack on Ukraine began.
“Since then the Russian specialists are forcefully detained on the site … in the wagon where the shipment was previously held,” the statement, circulated by the IAEA, said.
They requested that the IAEA “provide any possible assistance in solving this humanitarian issue, as well as to circulate this information among all IAEA member states as soon as possible”.
“Energoatom disputed the Russian mission’s version of events. It said there were four armed guards from Russia who had “accompanied the cargo” and “according to the contract, until the moment of unloading and transfer to the Ukrainian side, they guarded it. Yesterday this cargo was unloaded. After the completion of these works, the guards left the territory of the station accompanied by SBU officers, who ensure their security and transfer to the Russian side”.”
Rivne plant director Pavlo Pavlyshyn told NPR that Ukrainian forces were prepared to mount a defense should Russian troops try to take the plant.
Beyond Nuclear said on March 21: “Russia’s defense ministry has said it hit a Ukrainian military installation in the northwestern city of Rivne with cruise missiles on Monday, raising fears for the safety and security of Rivne’s four-reactor nuclear power plant, the second largest nuclear power plant in Ukraine and the biggest power station of any kind in western Ukraine.”
Why has Russia seized control of nuclear power plants?
Why was Chernobyl seized by the Russian military? Timothy Mousseau from the University of South Carolina writes:
“The reactor site’s industrial area is, in effect, a large parking lot suitable for staging an invading army’s thousands of vehicles. The power plant site also houses the main electrical grid switching network for the entire region. It’s possible to turn the lights off in Kyiv from here, even though the power plant itself has not generated any electricity since 2000, when the last of Chernobyl’s four reactors was shut down.
“Such control over the power supply likely has strategic importance, although Kyiv’s electrical needs could probably also be supplied via other nodes on the Ukrainian national power grid. The reactor site likely offers considerable protection from aerial attack, given the improbability that Ukrainian or other forces would risk combat on a site containing more than 5.3 million pounds (2.4 million kilograms) of radioactive spent nuclear fuel.”
William Potter from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, and director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, commented on March 10:
“It is tempting to portray Russian military action against Ukraine’s nuclear power infrastructure as not only immoral and illegal — which it is — but also irrational. This may well prove to be the case. However, it appears that Russian military planners were motivated to seize Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia — and possibly Yuzhnoukrainsk, Rivne, and Khmelnytskyi as well — in pursuit of several military objectives.
“The first, particularly relevant to the seizure of the Chernobyl plant, has to do with its location: about 12 miles from the Belarussian-Ukrainian border along the northern invasion route to Kyiv. Not only did it serve as a useful point of encampment for Russian troops in preparation for the attack on the Ukrainian capital, but it must have been viewed by Russian military planners as a safe haven from counter-attacks due to the huge quantity of radioactive material still present in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. The Russian attack on and seizure of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station near the city of Enerhodar, about 340 miles southeast of Kyiv, may also have been motivated in part by its location along a route of advancing forces. However, unlike at Chernobyl, there was little need in that sector for an encampment point.
“A second likely military objective is threatening to freeze the inhabitants of Kyiv and other cities into submission by turning off their electricity. The Zaporizhzhia plant is the largest power station in Europe and accounts for slightly over 20 percent of the total electricity generated in Ukraine. Were Russia also to take control of the Yuzhnoukrainsk power station, the second largest nuclear plant in Ukraine, it would control approximately 60 percent of Ukraine’s nuclear energy-generating capacity, which accounts for more than 50 percent of all electricity production in Ukraine.”
Jeffrey Merrifield, US NRC Commissioner from 1998 to 2007, argues in the Wall Street Journal that a “misunderstood motive for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is that Kiev was positioning itself to break away from its longtime Russian nuclear suppliers, while the United States was encroaching on Russia’s biggest nuclear export market.” Merrifield claims that spent fuel at Chernobyl could be shipped to a reprocessing facility in Russia; that Westinghouse provides fuel for six of Ukraine’s 15 nuclear reactors and could supply all of them if not for Russia’s invasion; and that plans to build Westinghouse AP1000 reactors in Ukraine will not proceed if Russia takes full control of Ukraine (and, by implication, any new reactors will be Russian).
Comment on the above: Those arguments are a bit of a stretch. If Russia takes full control of Ukraine, spent fuel at Chernobyl could be reprocessed in Russia but there’s every likelihood it won’t be … and that certainly hasn’t motivated the invasion, even to a small degree. The Russian government and Rosatom may have been annoyed that Ukraine was increasingly sourcing fuel from Westinghouse rather than Rosatom … but it isn’t a big deal and couldn’t be described as a motivation for war. Westinghouse has proven itself quite incapable of building reactors (hence its bankruptcy filing in 2017 following disastrous projects in the US states of Georgia and South Carolina) and there is little likelihood that Westinghouse AP1000 reactors would be built in Ukraine … so once again it’s a stretch to be citing that as a motivation for war.
Radioactive waste storage and disposal sites in Ukraine
Russian missiles hit a radioactive waste storage site near Kyiv on February 27. The IAEA said in a March 1 update:
“SNRIU said that all radioactive waste disposal facilities of the State Specialized Enterprise Radon were operating as usual, and the radiation monitoring systems did not indicate any deviations from normal values. On 27 February, the SNRIU informed the IAEA that missiles had hit the site of such a facility in the capital Kyiv, but there was no damage to the building and no reports of a radioactive release.”
The Kyiv radioactive waste storage site appears to be at least 1 km from any other human structures, suggesting the possibility of a deliberate strike.
Also on February 27, an electrical transformer was damaged at a radioactive waste storage site in Kharkiv, also without any reports of a radioactive release. According to SNRIU, a research reactor at the site has been shut down.
“These two incidents highlight the very real risk that facilities with radioactive material will suffer damage during the conflict, with potentially severe consequences for human health and the environment. I urgently and strongly appeal to all parties to refrain from any military or other action that could threaten the safety and security of these facilities.”
The Kyiv and Kharkiv facilities typically hold disused radioactive sources and other low-level waste from hospitals and industry, the IAEA said, but do not contain high-level nuclear waste. However the Kharkiv site may also store spent nuclear fuel from the research reactor.
Neutron Source at the Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology
SNRIU reported that a ‘Neutron Source‘ — a subcritical assembly with 37 nuclear fuel elements, controlled by a linear electron accelerator — at Kharkiv’s Institute of Physics and Technology was subjected to artillery fire on March 6. Ukraine claimed that the Russian military fired missiles from truck-mounted ‘Grad’ launchers, which do not have precise targeting. “Radiation condition on the playground is ok,” according to a reassuring if imprecise automatic translation of an SNRIU statement.
The World Nuclear Association reported on March 11: “[SNRIU] said the building housing the Neutron Source facility at the Kharkov Institute of Physics and Technology, which is used for research and to produce radioisotopes for medical and industrial applications, had suffered fresh “minor damage” during shelling on Thursday. SNRIU said on Friday that the “power supply to the systems/components important to safety has been restored and damage which would affect the state of nuclear and radiation safety have not been detected. The radiation situation on the site is within the standard limits.””
SNRIU said on March 19 that external power supply to the Neutron Source was absent due to the ongoing hostilities in the Pyatykhatky district of Kharkiv, which resulted in damage to the power supply lines.
SNRIU said on March 23:
“According to the information received from the operating organization (NRC KIPT), following the results of the NSI “Neutron Source” site examination conducted on 22-23 March 2022, the personnel:
* detected an object preliminarily qualified as an unexploded rocket of the multiple launch rocket system 9K58 “Smerch”, which poses a potential danger of a new explosion in the immediate vicinity of the nuclear installation;
* confirmed the absence of damage to systems/components and the NSI “Neutron Source” buildings, pumping and cooling towers buildings, isotope laboratory, which would affect safety, but numerous damages to windows and external surface of buildings were identified.
“The NSI “Neutron Source” personnel informed the relevant services on the explosive-hazardous item, but work organization on the disposal of the detected ordnance is impossible due to the ongoing hostilities in the area of the NSI “Neutron Source” location.
“According to updated information, the site was shelled once again at the final stage of the examination. The consequences will be specified after completion of the shelling and absence of danger to the personnel.
“It needs to be recalled that on 6 and 10 March 2022, the NSI “Neutron Source” was under bombing and shelling. In addition, combat operations are ongoing in the area of its location. As a result, the off-site power supply system, the air conditioning systems of the linear electron accelerator cluster gallery, and buildings (such as the nuclear installation building, pumping, and cooling towers buildings, isotope laboratories) were damaged.
“As of 23 March 2022, 15:00:
operational personnel monitor the state of the NSI “Neutron Source”;
* the nuclear installation has been transferred into a deep subcritical state (“long-term shutdown” mode since 24 February 2022);
* off-site power supply to the NSI “Neutron Source” is absent, but due to constant shelling of the site, there is no possibility to restore it;
* the on-site radiation situation is within the standard limits;
* the personnel continue implementing measures to eliminate the consequences of the hostilities and maintain the operability of the nuclear installation equipment.
“Please note the NSI “Neutron Source”, as well as any other nuclear installation, is not designed for use in conditions of combat operations. Continuation of bombing can lead to severe radiation consequences and contamination of the surrounding territories.”
SNRIU said on March 25 that off-site power supply is absent and that “due to constant shelling of the adjacent territories, there is no possibility to restore it”. SNRIU added: “The probability of new damage to the research nuclear installation remains quite high due to the constant shelling of the area of the NSI “Neutron Source” location. For the same reason, no measures have yet been taken to dispose of the explosive ordinance (previously classified as an unexploded rocket of the multiple launch rocket system 9K58 “Smerch”), which was detected in the immediate vicinity of the installation.”
The IAEA said on March 26: “In the north-eastern city of Kharkiv, the regulator said shelling was for a second day preventing measures to dispose of an unexploded rocket near a nuclear research facility. The previously damaged facility has been used for research and development and radioisotope production for medical and industrial applications. Its nuclear material is subcritical and the radioactive inventory is low. Personnel at the facility were maintaining the operability of the nuclear installation’s equipment and radiation was within “standard limits”. However, it was not possible to restore off-site power to the facility due to the shelling, the regulator added.”
SNRIU said on March 26: “According to the information received from the operating organization (NRC KIPT) on 26 March 2022, the NSI “Neutron Source” came under fire once again. It is not possible to estimate the extent of the damage due to the hostilities, which does not cease in the nuclear installation area.”
On March 27, SNRIU said that shelling by Russian troops on March 26 caused significant damage to the thermal insulation lining of the NSI “Neutron Source” building; and partial shedding of lining materials in the experimental hall of the installation. SNRIU said the probability of further damage to the research nuclear installation remains quite high due to the constant shelling of the area.
Other nuclear facilities / nuclear theft and smuggling risks
An Oncology Center in Kharkiv was destroyed by Russian shelling, jeopardising the safety and security of high-level radiation sources.From the SNRIU
SNRIU said on March 6 that there continued to be no communication with enterprises and institutions using Category 1-3 radiation sources in the eastern port city of Mariupol, including its Oncology Center, and that the safety and security of the radiation sources could not be confirmed. Such material can cause serious harm to people if not secured and managed properly, the IAEA noted.
The European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group said in a March 6 statement that it is “very concerned about the safety of several research reactors as well as sites holding highly radioactive sources.”
The IAEA said on March 24: “Also in Chornobyl town, the State Agency for the Management of the Exclusion Zone reported that an environmental laboratory had been “looted by marauders” and its equipment stolen. It was not possible to verify the whereabouts of the laboratory’s radiation calibration sources and environmental samples, it added. The Agency is seeking to obtain more information from the operators of the laboratory. However, based on the information provided, the IAEA assesses that the incident does not pose a significant radiological risk.” The State Agency of Ukraine for Exclusion Zone Management said that occupiers “robbed and destroyed” the November Central Analytical Laboratory in Chernobyl, and that the laboratory was based on “highly active samples” and samples of radionuclides “which are in the hands of the enemy today, hoping it will harm himself, not the civilized world.”
Vadim Chumak, head of the external exposure dosimetry lab at Ukraine’s National Research Center for Radiation Medicine, told RMIT Technology Review on March 25, in response to a question as to whether radioactive materials in hospitals pose a risk:
“It is something we need to consider, because in this war, many unthinkable things have become real. There are two medical sources of radiation. One is machinery, like X-ray machines or linear accelerators, which are used to treat cancer. They emit some radiation, but only if they are switched on. Once you switch it off, it’s just a piece of metal.
“But the second source uses isotopes like cobalt or cesium, which are used in nuclear medicine and radiation therapy, for instance in positron emission tomography (PET). They are physically protected in the hospital, which means they are protected from theft. But they are not protected against being hit by a bomb.
“If they were compromised, we might see something like the Goiânia accident in Brazil in 1989. Then, some people stole and dismantled a radiotherapy device from an abandoned hospital site in order to sell the parts as scrap metal. They discovered this small ampule filled with cesium, which glowed blue at night. It’s a long story, but the single destroyed source of radiation contaminated much of Goiânia. Four people died, 20 needed hospital treatment, and 249 people were contaminated. Eighty-five houses were significantly contaminated, and 200 of the people living in these homes were evacuated. So this kind of scenario needs to be considered. And that’s without thinking about malevolent use of the sources.”
Chumak also commented on the risks of dirty bombs: “The spent fuel assemblies, for example, are a very good material for making a dirty bomb, which is a scenario for a terrorist attack. The more technical term is a radiological dispersion device. If you attach such radioactive sources to a device and explode it, then it will result in contamination of a large area with radioactive material. There are a lot of radiological scenarios of this kind now on the table.”
Ex-Soviet states have been at the centre of global networks of nuclear theft and smuggling since the break-up of the Soviet Union, and there will undoubtedly be incidents of lost, stolen and smuggled nuclear materials arising from Russia’s war on Ukraine and the breakdown of national and international security arrangements.
In May 2014, Ukrainian authorities announced the seizure of radioactive material that had been smuggled into the country from a separatist region, and speculated that the intention may have been to use the material as a radiological weapon.
Ukraine noted in its report to the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit that state nuclear inspectors were unable to safely perform their duties in Crimea and certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in 2014.
Breakdown of nuclear regulation
SNRIU reported on March 12 that the implementation of licensed activities involving radioactive waste were suspended, including the transportation of radioactive materials, limited participation in the elimination of radiation accidents, and regulatory work ensuring the safety of radioactive waste storage.
See also the above sections titled:
No independent regulatory oversight of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant
Chernobyl ‒ lack of regulatory oversight
Inability of IAEA and other international organisations to reduce nuclear risks in Ukraine
SNRIU’s Acting Chair Oleh Korikov said on March 8: “I have to state that so far, despite the active initiatives of the Ukrainian party, unfortunately, no diplomatic efforts of the IAEA and other international partners have led to real results in reducing or eliminating military risks at Ukraine’s nuclear facilities. It is no exaggeration to note that today in Ukraine, due to the military aggression of the Russian Federation, the risks not only of radiation accidents of various scales, loss of control over radiation sources, but also unprecedented risks of global nuclear catastrophe have been created.”
In a March 15 letter, EU Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson said the EC, the EU national safety authorities meeting in the European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group (ENSREG), the Western European Nuclear Regulators Association (WENRA) and Heads of the European Radiological Protection Competent Authorities (HERCA) are working to provide support to Ukraine in the area of nuclear risk assessment and contribute to a coordinated emergency response at the European level, but that “in order for the international community to engage and provide practical support on the group, guaranteed safe travel to the concerned nuclear facilities and unhindered access to the concerned sites is needed”.
The IAEA has been trying to reduce nuclear risks since the conflict began in February 2022, but without any success. The IAEA said on March 20: “The challenging and uncertain situation at the Chornobyl NPP has underlined the importance of an IAEA initiative aimed at ensuring the safety and security of Ukraine’s nuclear facilities, the Director General [Grossi] said. He said he was continuing consultations with a view to agreeing on a framework for the delivery of IAEA assistance. “With this framework in place, the Agency would be able to provide effective technical assistance for the safe and secure operation of these facilities,” he said.”
The World Nuclear Association said on March 18: “IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi met with the foreign ministers of Russia and Ukraine in Turkey on 10 March for what he called “constructive” talks. Since then the IAEA has been drawing up detailed proposals for ways to ensure that nuclear facilities in Ukraine are not put at risk during the military conflict. Measures being considered include the deployment of IAEA staff at nuclear sites.”
IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi said on March 23:
“For the past few weeks, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been actively working to ensure the safety and security of all nuclear installations in Ukraine during these dramatic and unique circumstances where major nuclear facilities are operating in an armed conflict zone. I remain gravely concerned about the safety and security of the nuclear facilities in Ukraine. … As I have stated many times, there is an urgent need to conclude an agreed framework to preserve nuclear safety and security in Ukraine by establishing a clear commitment to observe and respect the seven indispensable pillars for ensuring nuclear safety and security. I have personally expressed my readiness to immediately come to Ukraine to conclude such an agreement, which would include substantial assistance and support measures, including on-site presence of IAEA experts at different facilities in Ukraine, as well as the delivery of vital safety equipment. This agreed framework will also help create the conditions for the IAEA to carry out safeguards verification activities.
“Intensive consultations have been ongoing for many days now, but a positive outcome still eludes us. Despite this, the distressing situation continues and the need to prevent a nuclear accident becomes more pressing with each day that passes. I want to thank the United Nations Secretariat and the many Governments that from the highest levels have expressed support for my initiative and the efforts of the IAEA. I reiterate today that the IAEA is ready and able to deploy immediately and provide indispensable assistance for ensuring nuclear safety and security in Ukraine. This assistance is essential to help avert the real risk of a severe nuclear accident that could threaten public health and the environment in Ukraine and beyond. I hope to be able to conclude this agreed framework without further delay. We cannot afford to lose any more time. We need to act now.”
Nikolai Steinberg, chief engineer of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant from May 1986 (one month after the April 26 disaster) to March 1987, wrote in a March 17 ‘Оpen letter to the IAEA Director General’:
“It is well known, that national regulators have the power to secure nuclear facilities in their country and to protect their citizens from events abroad, without being able to influence those events. Other organizations, WANO and OECD/NEA only act if invited by nuclear operators or governments. Only IAEA has the right to intervene and “take control”, but as a UN body, it can only do so with a mandate from the Security Council.
“Did you call the aggressor the aggressor? Did you insist that the UN Security Council be convened in connection with the global threat to nuclear safety and security? Did you immediately try to send IAEA missions to the Ukrainian nuclear facilities, which would at least provide a defense mechanism, since then any attack on the nuclear facilities would be an attack on the UN personnel? It was at least some specific step in support of nuclear safety.
“How long ago did you and your staff read the IAEA Statute? Do you remember the goals, functions and tasks of the IAEA?
“In your opinion, who today can be responsible for guarantees of non-proliferation of nuclear materials at the Zaporizhzhya and Chernobyl nuclear power plants seized by the Russian troops?
“In your opinion, can the personnel of the Zaporozhye and Chernobyl nuclear power plants ensure the safety of the facilities entrusted to them under the threat of the aggressor’s tanks and guns?
“By the way, did you know that the safety reports, on the basis of which, licenses for the operation of nuclear facilities are issued do not contain the limits and conditions of safety in war conditions?
“Do you know that the nuclear safety standards issued by the IAEA do not contain recommendations justifying nuclear safety in the context of hostilities? The standards also do not contain recommendations for emergency preparedness in case of war.
“Do you think there is a nuclear safety culture in a country that has dozens of nuclear installations and allows itself to attack nuclear power plants, spent nuclear fuel storage facilities and personnel training centers in another country?
“Does the Agency you lead have a culture of safety that is afraid to speak openly about what is happening today, that the world is once again on the brink of a nuclear catastrophe?
“What kind of safety culture can we talk about if, with their tails between their legs, the leaders of the world nuclear community are afraid to say aloud the names of the criminals including professionals who have taken the world hostage?
“The attack on Ukraine nuclear facilities by Russian troops dealt a terrible blow to the international nuclear safety & security and non-proliferation regime. The reaction of the IAEA may well be perceived as “everything and everyone is permitted”. Have you, the Director General of the IAEA, still not understood this?
“I would very much like to hope that the Agency finally realize the essence of the event, call everything by its right name and take measures that will make it possible to save and improve the nuclear safety regime and save the World from a nuclear catastrophe.
“Time doesn’t wait.”
On March 24, a month after the invasion began, Grossi said that a positive outcome in his talks with the two sides had yet to be reached despite “intensive consultations”, and “the need to prevent a nuclear accident becomes more pressing with each day that passes. He added: “I hope to be able to conclude this agreed framework without further delay. We cannot afford to lose any more time. We need to act now.”
Russia’s role in the IAEA
In a letter to the IAEA, European Union Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson criticised Russia’s ongoing role on the IAEA’s Board of Governors. “I find it unacceptable that Russia can continue its privileged role at the IAEA in view of its irresponsible military actions on the ground in Ukraine,” she said.
Lana Zerkal, Adviser to the Minister of Energy of Ukraine, ex-deputy foreign minister, said in an interview with Radio NV in late March: “Ukraine and our partners currently work towards removing Russia from the IAEA, or at least reducing its role there and removing all Russians from the key positions they hold in the Secretariat of the International Atomic Energy Agency.”
Nuclear safety and security upgrades in Ukraine prior to the 2022 invasion
Summarised below is a generous assessment of nuclear safety and security upgrades in Ukraine since the 2011 Fukushima disaster. For more critical assessments, see the Greenpeace International report on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, and the extensive research by the Bankwatch Network.
Mark Hibbs, senior fellow in Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Program, offers this (generous) assessment of safety and security upgrades in Ukraine since the Fukushima disaster:
“Partly in response to growing awareness of terrorist threats over the past two decades, more attention has been paid to potential hostile incursions. Encouraged by the United States government, which held a series of nuclear security summits beginning in 2010, Ukraine identified and addressed weaknesses in nuclear stations’ physical protection and security. Ukraine reported significant progress, especially after Russia occupied Crimea and interfered in eastern Ukraine beginning in 2014. …
“The Ukrainian government and industry systematically investigated all of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants to find weaknesses, with the intention to stiffen plants’ defenses in part through modern upgrades of the plants’ original engineering systems.
“For all extreme external events—armed attacks as well as severe storms—the ultimate initiators of a dire nuclear safety crisis may be the same: a station blackout, loss of off-site power, and/or loss of emergency cooling capacity. Between 2011 and 2021, Ukraine designed and implemented 80 percent of a comprehensive upgrading program for all fifteen nuclear power plants, encompassing critical areas such as black-out conditions, emergency power and coolant supplies, and qualification of plant equipment for extreme conditions.
“One critical line of defense at a nuclear power plant is the outer structure surrounding the reactor and its fuel. Most reactors are outfitted with concrete-steel containments designed to withstand extreme impacts, such as a collision with fighter jet aircraft aimed directly at the reactor, or attacks by targeted explosive charges. But not all reactors are equal. A few older units, including two at Rivne in Ukraine, were built without concrete-steel containments. Measures to improve the robustness of confinement equipment for such reactors are limited. …
“Ukraine took steps to defend its nuclear plants against threats from sabotage, cyberattacks, and terrorism, but the Zaporizhzhia station was not prepared to withstand an onslaught from an invading foreign army. Likewise, despite efforts in Ukraine to systematically incorporate emergency preparedness and accident management principles, if operators are intimidated, stressed, deterred from taking sound actions, or replaced by outside personnel unfamiliar with an installation whose safety systems have been modified, including with Western technology and equipment, advance preparation may not suffice.”
Putin reportedly has greater ambitions than invading and controlling Ukraine, so who knows where the escalation will lead, what risks will emerge, how long it will drag on, and whether it triggers a response from NATO countries and the US/NATO alliance more generally.
The risk of nuclear warfare is very low, but it is not zero. Perhaps the greatest risk is that one or another nuclear-armed nation will mistakenly believe itself to be under nuclear attack and respond in kind.
Near-misses have happened before. For example, in 1979, a US training tape showing a massive attack was accidentally played. In 1983, a Soviet satellite mistakenly signalled the launch of a US missile. In 1995, Russia almost launched its missiles because of a Norwegian rocket studying the northern lights.
It doesn’t help that NATO and Russian military doctrines allow for the use of tactical nuclear weapons to fend off defeat in a major conventional war. It doesn’t help that some missiles can carry either conventional weapons or nuclear weapons, increasing the risk of worst-case thinking and a precipitous over-reaction by the adversary.
And it doesn’t help that Putin’s recent statements could be construed as a veiled threat to use nuclear weapons, or that a referendum in Belarus revoked the nuclear-weapon-free pledge in its constitution, or that Belarusian president Aleksander Lukashenko joined Putin to watch the Russian military carry out a nuclear weapons exercise, or that Lukashenko has said Belarus would be open to hosting Russian nuclear weapons.
Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, points to other concerns. “Russia and Belarus are not alone in their aggressive and irresponsible posture either,” she writes.
“The United States continues to exploit a questionable reading of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) that prevents states from ‘possessing’ nuclear weapons but allows them to host those weapons. Five European states currently host approximately 100 US nuclear weapons: Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Turkey …”
In a worst-case scenario, the direct impacts of nuclear warfare would be followed by catastrophic climatic impacts.
Earth and paleoclimate scientist Andrew Glikson noted in a recent article:
“When Turco et al. (1983) and Carl Sagan (1983) warned the world about the climatic effects of a nuclear war, they pointed out that the amount of carbon stored in a large city was sufficient to release enough aerosols, smoke, soot and dust to block sunlight over large regions, leading to a widespread failure of crops and extensive starvation.
“The current nuclear arsenals of the United States and Russia could potentially inject 150 teragrams of soot from fires ignited by nuclear explosions into the upper troposphere and lower stratosphere, lasting for a period of 10 years or longer, followed by a period of intense radioactive radiation over large areas. …
“Such an extreme event would arrest global warming for 10 years or longer, possibly in part analogous to the consequences of a less abrupt flow of polar ice melt into the oceans …”
Richard Garwin poses these questions: “What happens with a failed state with a nuclear power system? Can the reactors be maintained safely? Will the world – under the IAEA and UN Security Council – move to guard nuclear installations against theft of weapon-usable material or sabotage, in the midst of chaos? Not likely.”
There are examples of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards being suspended in the event of war or domestic political turmoil, including in Iraq in 1991, some African states, Yugoslavia, and most recently in Ukraine itself.
In 2014, Ukraine’s ambassador to the IAEA circulated a letter to the organisation’s board of governors warning that an invasion could bring a “threat of radiation contamination on the territory of Ukraine and the territory of neighbouring states.” Ukraine’s parliament called for international monitors to help protect the plants.
No special measures were put in place to safeguards nuclear facilities in Ukraine. IAEA safeguards inspections have been compromised in Crimea since Russia’s 2014 invasion – indeed there may not have been any inspections whatsoever. IAEA safeguards inspections in eastern Ukraine have also been compromised as a result of Russia’s 2014 invasion.
Thus the IAEA has been unable to conclude that all civil nuclear materials and facilities in Ukraine have remained in peaceful use. Not that such conclusions carry much weight: the IAEA routinely reaches comforting conclusions based on the flimsiest of evidence.
During the conflict in Ukraine beginning February 2022, apart from the lack of any IAEA on-site safeguards inspections, remote monitoring communications have been disrupted. Grossi said on March 10 that the IAEA is not losing all information regarding nuclear material, but is losing a significant amount. “Safeguards is predicated on the basis of a constant monitoring capacity,” he said.
The IAEA said on March 21: “In relation to safeguards, the Agency said that the situation remained unchanged from that reported previously. The Agency was still not receiving remote data transmission from its monitoring systems installed at the Chornobyl NPP, but such data was being transferred to IAEA headquarters from the other NPPs in Ukraine.”
Cyber-warfare is another risk which could jeopardise the safe operation of nuclear plants. Russia is one of the growing number of states actively engaged in cyber-warfare. James Acton from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace notes that a Russian cyber-attack disrupted power supply in Ukraine in 2015.
Nuclear facilities have repeatedly been targets of cyber-attack, including the Stuxnet computer virus targeted by Israel and the US to disrupt Iran’s uranium enrichment centrifuges in 2009.
Reports from the UK-based Chatham House and the US-based Nuclear Threat Initiative have identified multiple computer security concerns specific to nuclear power plants.