Nuclear power myth-busting Q&A

Last updated April 2022.

  1. What do scientists say about nuclear power in relation to other energy sources?
  2. Isn’t nuclear power better than coal in the short term because of immediate danger of fuelling climate change?
  3. How does nuclear power stack up against other energy sources by cost of production?
  4. Thorium reactors … aren’t they a good option?
  5. Isn’t nuclear fusion power just around the corner?
  6. Aren’t there new reactors that are fuelled by nuclear waste ‒ wouldn’t this solve the problem of radioactive waste?
  7. Isn’t it true that Finland and Sweden are about to start operating high-level nuclear waste dumps?
  8. Won’t Small Modular Reactors be safer and cheaper?
  9. Doesn’t nuclear power have zero emissions?
  10. Nuclear accidents are rare, aren’t they?
  11. Isn’t it true that Chernobyl only killed 31 people and Fukushima hasn’t killed anyone?
  12. How much water does a nuclear power plant consume?
  13. Are there vested interests in the current resurgence of arguments for nuclear power?

  1. What do scientists say about nuclear power in relation to other energy sources?

  • In January 2019, the Climate Council, comprising Australia’s leading climate scientists, issued a policy statement concluding that nuclear power plants “are not appropriate for Australia – and probably never will be”. The Climate Council statement continued: “Nuclear power stations are highly controversial, can’t be built under existing law in any Australian state or territory, are a more expensive source of power than renewable energy, and present significant challenges in terms of the storage and transport of nuclear waste, and use of water”.
  • Nuclear supporters often claim scientific support even where none exists. For example the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is said to support nuclear power on the basis of a 2018 report, but in fact the report simply maps out multiple energy/climate scenarios without endorsing any particular energy sources. In the IPCC’s low-carbon scenarios, nuclear power accounts for only a small fraction of electricity supply (even if nuclear output increases) whereas renewables do the heavy lifting. For example, in one 1.5°C scenario, nuclear power more than doubles by 2050 but only accounts for 4.2% of primary energy whereas renewables account for 60.8%. Moreover, the IPCC reports discusses serious problems with nuclear power, including its contribution to nuclear weapons proliferation, the connection between nuclear power and childhood leukemia, and nuclear power’s high costs.
  1. Isn’t nuclear power better than coal in the short term because of immediate danger of fuelling climate change?

  • Nuclear power and fossil fuels aren’t the only choices. Renewable power has doubled over the past decade and now accounts for 29% of global electricity generation while nuclear’s contribution is 10% and continues to fall.
  • The federal Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources expects 69% renewable supply to the Australian National Electricity Market by 2030. South Australia has already reached 67% renewable supply and will comfortably meet the target of 100% net renewable supply by 2030.
  • Taking into account planning and approvals, construction, and the energy payback time, it would be a quarter of a century or more before nuclear power could even begin to reduce greenhouse emissions in Australia … and then only assuming that nuclear power replaced fossil fuels. So nuclear power clearly isn’t a short-term option or a ‘bridging’ technology to ease the shift from fossil fuels to renewables.
  • On the contrary, nuclear power would slow the shift away from fossil fuels, which is why fossil-fuel funded political parties and politicians support nuclear power (e.g. the Nationals) and why organisations such as the Minerals Council of Australia support nuclear power. As Australian economist Prof. John Quiggin notes, support for nuclear power in Australia is, in practice, support for coal.
  • Nuclear power plants are vulnerable to threats which are being exacerbated by climate change. These include dwindling and warming water sources, sea-level rise, storm damage, drought, and jelly-fish swarms. Retired nuclear engineer David Lochbaum states: “You need to solve global warming for nuclear plants to survive.”
  • Nuclear power programs have provided cover for numerous covert weapons programs and an expansion of nuclear power would exacerbate the problems. Australian energy expert Dr. Mark Diesendorf states: “On top of the perennial challenges of global poverty and injustice, the two biggest threats facing human civilisation in the 21st century are climate change and nuclear war. It would be absurd to respond to one by increasing the risks of the other. Yet that is what nuclear power does.”
  • Nuclear warfare is the quickest path to climate catastrophe. Earth and paleoclimate scientist Andrew Glikson writes: “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.”
  1. How does nuclear power stack up against other energy sources by cost of production?

  • Nuclear power is far more expensive than other energy sources. Since 2010, the cost of wind and solar PV has decreased by 70‒90% while nuclear costs have increased 33%.
  • Lazard investment firm provides these figures in its October 2021 report on ‘levelised costs of electricity’:

            Nuclear                                   US$131‒204 (A$186‒289)

            Wind ‒ onshore                       US$26‒50

            Solar PV ‒ utility scale             US$28‒41

  • In its 2021 GenCost report, CSIRO provides these 2030 cost estimates:

            Nuclear (small modular): A$128‒322 / MWh

            90% wind and solar PV with storage and transmission costs: A$55‒80 / MWh

  • The latest estimates for all reactors under construction in western Europe and the U.S. range from A$17.6 billion to A$30.6 billion per reactor and have been subject to spectacular cost overruns amounting to A$10 billion or more. A twin-reactor project in South Carolina was abandoned after the expenditure of A$12 billion.
  1. Thorium reactors … aren’t they a good option?

  • There are no fundamental differences between thorium and uranium: thorium reactors produce nuclear waste, and they are vulnerable to catastrophic accidents, and they can be (and have been) used to produce explosive material for nuclear weapons.
  • Thorium reactor technology is not commercially available or viable. Dr Peter Karamaskos states: “Without exception, [thorium reactors] have never been commercially viable, nor do any of the intended new designs even remotely seem to be viable. Like all nuclear power production they rely on extensive taxpayer subsidies; the only difference is that with thorium and other breeder reactors these are of an order of magnitude greater, which is why no government has ever continued their funding.”
  1. Isn’t nuclear fusion power just around the corner?

  • At best, fusion is decades away and most likely it will forever remain decades away. Two articles in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists by Dr. Daniel Jassby ‒ a fusion scientist ‒ comprehensively debunk all of the false claims made by fusion enthusiasts.
  1. Aren’t there new reactors that are fuelled by nuclear waste ‒ wouldn’t this solve the problem of radioactive waste?

  • “Advanced” reactors are not advanced: they are not safer and in many cases are more dangerous and with even greater weapons potential.
  • Theoretically, these reactors would reduce nuclear waste streams but in practice, fancy concepts such as molten salt reactors and sodium-cooled fast reactors “will actually exacerbate spent fuel storage and disposal issues” according to Dr. Allison Macfarlane, a former chair of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
  • Likewise, ‘integral fast reactors’ coupled with ‘pyroprocessing’ could reduce waste streams in theory … but in practice the opposite has occurred. Commenting on a R&D program in the U.S., Dr. Edwin Lyman notes that “Pyroprocessing has taken one potentially difficult form of nuclear waste and converted it into multiple challenging forms of nuclear waste. DOE [Department of Energy] has spent hundreds of millions of dollars only to magnify, rather than simplify, the waste problem.” See also Dr. Lyman’s important 2021 report, ‘Advanced” Isn’t Always Better: Assessing the Safety, Security, and Environmental Impacts of Non-Light-Water Nuclear Reactors’.
  1. Isn’t it true that Finland and Sweden are about to start operating high-level nuclear waste dumps?

  • Finland and Sweden have been working on repositories for high-level nuclear waste for decades ‒ their plans are many years behind schedule and operation has yet to begin. They haven’t demonstrated safe disposal of high-level nuclear waste for a single year let alone the 300,000 years that it takes for high-level nuclear waste to decay to the level of radioactivity of the original uranium ore.
  • Other countries operating nuclear power plants ‒ including the US, the UK, Japan, South Korea, Germany, etc. ‒ have not even established a site for a high-level nuclear waste repository, let alone commenced construction or operation. To give one example of a protracted, expensive and failed attempt to establish a high-level nuclear waste repository, plans for a high-level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada were abandoned in 2009. Over 20 years of work was put into the repository plan and A$12 billion was wasted on the failed project.
  • A January 2019 report details the difficulties with high-level nuclear waste management in seven countries (Belgium, France, Japan, Sweden, Finland, the UK and the US) and serves as a useful overview of the serious problems that Australia has avoided.
  • No operating deep underground repository for high-level nuclear waste exists, but there is one deep underground repository for long lived intermediate-level nuclear waste − the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in the US state of New Mexico. In 2014, a chemical explosion ruptured one of the barrels stored underground at WIPP. This was followed by a failure of the filtration system meant to ensure that radiation did not reach the outside environment. Twenty-two workers were exposed to low-level radiation. WIPP was closed for three years. A deeply troubling aspect of the WIPP problems is that complacency and cost-cutting set in within the first decade of operation of the repository.
  1. Won’t Small Modular Reactors be safer and cheaper?

  • Small modular reactors (SMRs), if they existed, would be just as accident-prone as large reactors. Proposals to situate SMRs underground pose unique safety threats from flooding and accessibility. They would still produce long-lived radioactive waste and be useful for weapons production.
  • Only two SMRs are said to exist ‒ one in Russia and one in China ‒ but neither meets the ‘modular’ part of the definition: serial factor production of reactor components (or ‘modules’).
  • Electricity from SMRs is expected to be more expensive than that from large, conventional nuclear reactors. There is no current market for SMRs and companies are refusing to make the huge investments required because of the high risks.
  • Most of the handful of SMRs under construction are over-budget and behind schedule; there are disturbing connections between SMRs, weapons proliferation and militarism more generally; and about half of the SMRs under construction are intended to be used to facilitate the exploitation of fossil fuel reserves (in the Arctic, the South China Sea and elsewhere).
  1. Doesn’t nuclear power have zero emissions?

  • A 2009 paper prepared for the Australian Uranium Association estimated that the nuclear power life cycle generates between 10‒103 grams of CO2 equivalent per kWh, which is far lower than fossil fuels ‒ but as uranium ore grades decline emissions would increase to as much as 248 gCO2e/kWh. As well as emissions from mining and milling uranium ore there are emissions associated with the transport and processing of fuel.
  1. Nuclear accidents are rare, aren’t they?

  • There have been over 200 nuclear power accidents.
  • Nuclear theft and smuggling are serious, unresolved problems. As of 31 December 2018, an International Atomic Energy Agency database contained a total of 3,497 confirmed incidents reported by participating States since 1993, of which 285 incidents involved a confirmed or likely act of trafficking or malicious use, and for an additional 965 incidents there was insufficient information to determine if it was related to trafficking or malicious use.
  • There have been an alarming number of deliberate attacks on nuclear plants. Examples include Israel’s destruction of a research reactor in Iraq in 1981; the United States’ destruction of two smaller research reactors in Iraq in 1991; attempted military strikes by Iraq and Iran on each other’s nuclear facilities during the 1980‒88 war; Iraq’s attempted missile strikes on Israel’s nuclear facilities in 1991; and Israel’s bombing of a suspected nuclear plant in Syria in 2007.
  1. Isn’t it true that Chernobyl only killed 31 people and Fukushima hasn’t killed anyone?

  • United Nations’ reports in 2005/06 estimated around 9,000 deaths among those people most heavily exposed to radioactive fallout from Chernobyl and populations exposed to lower doses in Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine. The estimated death toll rises further when populations beyond those three countries are included. For example, a study published in the International Journal of Cancer estimates 16,000 deaths across Europe. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that there will be 27,000‒108,000 excess cancers and 12,000‒57,000 excess cancer deaths due to exposure of radiation from Chernobyl.
  • In a study of the health impacts of the March 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan (multiple nuclear reactor meltdowns, fires and explosions), the World Health Organisation stated that for people in the most contaminated areas in Fukushima Prefecture, the estimated increased risk for all solid cancers will be around 4% in females exposed as infants; a 6% increased risk of breast cancer for females exposed as infants; a 7% increased risk of leukaemia for males exposed as infants; and for thyroid cancer among females exposed as infants, an increased risk of up to 70% (from a 0.75% lifetime risk up to 1.25%).
  • Radiation biologist Ian Fairlie estimates around 5,000 fatal cancer deaths resulting from exposure to radioactive Fukushima fallout. In addition, there is no dispute that at least 2,000 people died due to the botched evacuation of Fukushima and the mistreatment of evacuees over the following years.
  1. How much water does a nuclear power plant consume?

  • Nuclear requires water in the mining and production of uranium fuel, generation of electricity and cooling at nuclear reactors, and for the management of wastes.
  • Reactors are generally situated near lakes, rivers or the ocean to meet cooling water requirements. There are two types of cooling systems used for nuclear power ‒ either ‘once-through’ or recirculating. With once-through systems, warmer water is discharged back into the environment, often having a significant impact on the local ecology.
  • A single nuclear power reactor operating for a single day typically consumes 36‒65 million litres of water. A 2006 paper by the Commonwealth Department of Parliamentary Services states: “Per megawatt existing nuclear power stations use and consume more water than power stations using other fuel sources. Depending on the cooling technology utilised, the water requirements for a nuclear power station can vary between 20 to 83 per cent more than for other power stations.”
  • By contrast, the REN21 ‘Renewables 2015: Global Status Report’ states: “Although renewable energy systems are also vulnerable to climate change, they have unique qualities that make them suitable both for reinforcing the resilience of the wider energy infrastructure and for ensuring the provision of energy services under changing climatic conditions. System modularity, distributed deployment, and local availability and diversity of fuel sources − central components of energy system resilience − are key characteristics of most renewable energy systems.”
  1. Are there vested interests in the current resurgence of arguments for nuclear power?

  • Yes, corporations with vested interests in nuclear power and uranium routinely promote dishonest arguments in support of nuclear power. For example, the Minerals Council of Australia promotes ‘clean nuclear’ and ‘clean coal’.
  • In addition, right-wing ideologues promote nuclear power as part of the ‘culture wars’ and they hope that nuclear promotion will divide the Labor Party and the environment movement. Those efforts have been unsuccessful and self-defeating ‒ the only splits that have emerged in recent years are within the Coalition parties, with the SA, NSW and Tasmanian Liberal parties and the Queensland branch of the Liberal-National Party opposing nuclear power and calling for more support for the expansion of renewable energy sources. At the federal level, there is bipartisan support for Howard-era legislation banning nuclear power in Australia.
  • Lastly, beware of pro-nuclear ‘greenwashing’ ‒ corporate-funded fake environmentalism. An Australian example was the ‘Bright New World‘ group which accepted secret corporate donations. Another example is the fake ‘Australian Greens for Nuclear Energy‘ group.

Paladin Energy goes bust

Jim Green, Nuclear Monitor #847, 21 July 2017

https://www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/847/paladin-energy-goes-bust

“It has never been a worse time for uranium miners.” ‒ Alexander Molyneux, CEO of Paladin Energy, October 2016.1

Paladin Energy Ltd appointed administrators on July 3 after Electricité de France (EDF) called in a US$277 million debt that Paladin was unable to pay.2 Paladin is a uranium mining company based in Perth, Western Australia. The company is 75% owner of the Langer Heinrich uranium mine in Namibia, 85% owner of the Kayelekera uranium mine in Malawi (in care and maintenance since 2014), and it owns sundry ‘nonproducing assets’ in Australia, Canada and Niger.

The administrators, from KPMG, will continue to operate Paladin on a business-as-usual basis until further notice. Paladin said its management and directors “remain committed” to working with the administrators to restructure and recapitalise the company.2

Paladin “was formerly a multi-billion-dollar company and was once the best-­performed stock in the world” according to The Australian newspaper.3 The company’s share price went from one Australian cent in 2003 to A$10.80 in 2007, but has fallen more than 200-fold and traded at 4.7 cents before trading was suspended in early June 2017.4 Paladin had just US$21.8 million in cash at the end of March 2017.4 The company’s losses totalled US$1.9 billion between 1994 and 2014.5

Later this year, China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC), which already owns 25% of the Langer Heinrich mine, may purchase Paladin’s 75% stake. The move comes as a result of CNNC seeking to exercise a debt-default option to acquire the 75% stake. Paladin wanted to challenge CNNC in court, but after consulting with debt holders agreed not to do so due to prohibitive cost.6 Paladin could gain US$500 million from the sale but will still be in debt. In addition to the US$277 million it owes EDF, Paladin owes bondholders US$372 million.3

Assuming the Langer Heinrich sale goes ahead, Paladin will have nothing other than ‘nonproducing assets’ and the Kayelekera mine – which also a nonproducing asset since it is in care and maintenance. So the administrators have very little to work with. Just keeping Kayelekera in care and maintenance costs about US$10 million per year.7

Paladin said in 2014 that its decision to place Kayelekera on care and maintenance “is the latest in a sequence of closures, production suspensions and deferrals of major planned greenfield and brownfield expansions in the uranium sector, including Paladin’s decision in 2012 to suspend evaluation of a major Stage 4 expansion of the Langer Heinrich Mine in Namibia.”8

Paladin said in 2015 that a price of about US$75 per pound would be required for Kayelekera to become economically viable9 ‒ but that price hasn’t been seen since 2011 and it is more than three times the current spot price and more than double the long-term contract price.10 Paladin also said that the availability of grid power supply would be necessary to restart Kayelekera, to replace the existing diesel generators.9

Selling nonproducing assets

Late last year, Paladin was reduced to selling nonproducing assets for a song. Paladin sold a number of Australian uranium exploration projects to Uranium Africa for A$2.5 million, including Oobagooma in Western Australia and the Angela/Pamela and Bigrlyi projects in the Northern Territory.11 Paladin told shareholders that the assets were ‘noncore’ and it was unlikely the company would be in a position to conduct any meaningful work developing the projects over the next decade.11 The A$2.5 million did little to improve Paladin’s financial situation, but the company is also spared from further spending on rates, rents and statutory commitments payable to keep the tenements in good standing.11

Last year, Paladin also sold its 257.5 million shares in uranium exploration company Deep Yellow for A$2.6 million, with shares priced at one Australian cent a share.11 Deep Yellow, like Paladin, is an Australian-based company whose main interests are in Africa. Deep Yellow is now headed by John Borshoff, who founded Paladin in 1993 and agreed to step down as managing director and chief executive in August 2015.

Some ‘nonproducing assets’ can’t be sold, not even for a song. Paladin hoped to sell a 30% stake in the Manyingee uranium project in Western Australia to Avira Energy for A$10 million, but Avira did not raise the required capital by the 31 March 2017 deadline.12 Avira said in April 2017 that investors who had previously committed to support its capital increase had withdrawn as a consequence of a “challenging” environment for new uranium projects in Western Australia.12 Development of Manyingee (and all other non-approved deposits) is prohibited under the policy of the current Western Australian government.

The Australian Financial Review reflected on happier days for Paladin: “John Borshoff was once one of Western Australia’s wealthiest businessmen. The founder of Perth-based Paladin Energy developed an enviable portfolio of African uranium mines supposed to satiate booming global demand for yellowcake. When the company’s Langer Heinrich mine began shipments in March 2007, as the spot price for uranium eclipsed $US100 per pound, Paladin was worth more than $4 billion.”13

Borshoff, described as the grandfather of Australian uranium, made his debut on the Business Review Weekly’s ‘Rich 200’ list in 2007 with estimated wealth of A$205 million.13 Reuters describes Paladin as the world’s second largest independent pure-play uranium miner after Cameco and the seventh or eighth largest globally.1 When the company’s two mines in Africa were operating, annual production capacity was about eight million pounds of uranium oxide ‒ about 5% of world demand.

Paladin gambled and lost

Paladin gambled and lost, relying heavily on debt financing to quickly develop the Langer Heinrich and Kayelekera mines in Africa.13 Another failed gamble was to sell primarily on the spot market, thus missing the opportunity to lock in long-term contracts when the price was relatively high13 ‒ the long-term contract price has halved since the Fukushima disaster.

Another failed gamble was Paladin’s A$1.2 billion hostile takeover bid for Summit Resources in 2007.13 Paladin owns 82% of Summit, which is sitting on uneconomic uranium deposits in Queensland ‒ an Australian state which bans uranium mining. In 2015, Paladin booked a A$323.6 million write-down on its exploration assets in Queensland.14

A July 2013 mining.com article said that “to put things lightly, management is overpaid”, and suggested that management’s focus may be “on its own best interests rather than the interests of all shareholders”.15

Dave Sweeney, nuclear free campaigner with the Australian Conservation Foundation, told Nuclear Monitor:

“Paladin’s ambition and appetite has always exceeded its capacity and competence and now the gap between its inflated promises and its profound under-performance is absolute. This company has always been a uranium bull. It’s former CEO John Borshoff promised unrealistic wealth for Africa while dismissing Fukushima as a ‘sideshow’. When the market was buoyant they paraded their portfolio and were market darlings, now they are desperate, dateless and on administrative life-support.

“A real concern here is the impact on the environment and communities in which Paladin operate. The risk is that more corners will be cut in African operations in relation to rehabilitation, worker entitlements and environmental protection. Paladin’s boom to bust case study is a further clear example of the lack of independent scrutiny of the uranium sector and also reflects poorly on the activities of Australian miners operating in nations with limited governance and regulatory capacity.”

References:

  1. Geert De Clercq, 3 Oct 2016, ‘Desperate uranium miners switch to survival mode despite nuclear rebound’, www.reuters.com/article/us-uranium-nuclearpower-idUSKCN1230EF
  2. World Nuclear News, 3 July 2017, ‘Paladin Energy enters administration’, http://world-nuclear-news.org/UF-Paladin-Energy-enters-administration-0307177.html
  3. Paul Garvey, 4 July 2017, ‘French debt forces uranium miner Paladin into administration’, www.theaustralian.com.au/business/companies/french-debt-forces-uranium-miner-paladin-into-administration/news-story/b366be6e20bbaa2cf8b0439b64ef6168
  4. Nick Evans, 11 Aug 2015, ‘Borshoff cedes control of debt-laden Paladin’, West Australian.
  5. Mike King, 19 Jan 2015, ‘Paladin Energy Ltd revenues soar 79% but shares sink’, www.fool.com.au/2015/01/19/paladin-energy-ltd-revenues-soar-79-but-shares-sink/
  6. Greg Peel, 11 July 2017, ‘Uranium Week: Taking Its Toll’, www.fnarena.com/index.php/2017/07/11/uranium-week-taking-its-toll/
  7. Rachel Etter-Phoya and Grain Malunga / OpenOil, Oct 2016, ‘Kayelekera Model & Narrative Report’, http://openoil.net/kayelekera-model-narrative-report/
  8. Paladin Energy, 7 Feb 2014, ‘Suspension of Production at Kayelekera Mine, Malawi’, www.marketwired.com/press-release/paladin-energy-ltd-suspension-of-production-at-kayelekera-mine-malawi-tsx-pdn-1876805.htm
  9. Sarah-Jane Tasker, 8 Jan 2015, ‘Paladin Energy alerts ASX to spill at Malawi uranium mine’, www.theaustralian.com.au/business/mining-energy/paladin-energy-alerts-asx-to-spill-at-malawi-uranium-mine/story-e6frg9df-1227177696428
  10. https://www.cameco.com/invest/markets/uranium-price
  11. Esmarie Swanepoel, 15 Dec 2016, ‘Paladin holds a fire sale’, www.miningweekly.com/article/paladin-holds-a-fire-sale-2016-12-15
  12. World Nuclear News, 3 April 2017, http://us1.campaign-archive1.com/?u=140c559a3b34d23ff7c6b48b9&id=4499e9a24a&e=ae5ca458a0
  13. Tess Ingram, 7 July 2017, ‘Paladin Energy: from market hero to administration’, www.afr.com/business/mining/uranium/paladin-energy-from-market-hero-to-administration-20170706-gx6a84
  14. Henry Lazenby, 14 May 2015, ‘Paladin Energy narrows nine-month net loss’, www.miningweekly.com/article/paladin-energy-narrows-nine-month-net-loss-2015-05-14
  15. Tommy Humphreys, 10 July 2013, ‘Uranium outlook and Paladin Energy risk profile’, www.mining.com/web/uranium-outlook-and-paladin-energy-risk-profile/

Paladin Energy’s social and environmental record in Africa

Jim Green, Nuclear Monitor #847, 21 July 2017,

https://www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/847/paladin-energys-social-and-environmental-record-africa

Paladin Energy’s operations in Africa ‒ the Kayelekera uranium mine in Malawi and the Langer Heinrich mine in Namibia ‒ have been marked by regular accidents and controversies. The WISE-Uranium website has a ‘Hall of Infamy’ page dedicated to the company.1 Some of the accidents and controversies are listed here and a more detailed account is posted on the Nuclear Monitor website.2

April 2006: Paladin CEO John Borshoff told ABC television: “Australia and Canada have become overly sophisticated. They measure progress in other aspects than economic development, and rightly so, but I think there has been a sort of overcompensation in terms of thinking about environmental issues, social issues, way beyond what is necessary to achieve good practice.”3

November 2006: NGOs groundWork and the Centre for Civil Society gave out the ‘Southern African Corpse Awards’ ‒ an annual mock ceremony for big business ‒ in Durban. Paladin was awarded the ‘Pick the Public Pocketprize’ thanks to a nomination from Malawian NGOs.4

2007: Criticisms of operations at Kayelekera outlined by the Catholic Church and other Malawian community and environmental organisations included the following issues of concern: inadequacy of the Environmental Impact Assessment; flaws in community consultation; government deferring its role in safeguarding community interests to the company; destruction of cultural and historic sites; increased social disorder; unfair compensation for those forcibly relocated; and undue interference with makeup of community based organisations.5

4 January 2007: Two Malawian NGO members were ordered to go to the Karonga Police Station by the Chief of Police and threatened with arrest for taking an Australian photojournalist sponsored by the two Australian unions (MUA and CFMEU) to Kayelekera. The Chief of Police said they were acting on a complaint from Paladin.6

March 2007: Paladin’s Kayelekera project would not be approved in Australia due to the major flaws in the assessment and design proposals, independent reviewers concluded. Their report covered baseline environmental studies, tailings management, water management, rehabilitation, failure to commit to respecting domestic laws, use of intimidation and threatening tactics against local civil society, improper community consultation and payments to local leaders, and destruction of cultural heritage.7

27 March 2008: The open pit at Paladin’s Langer Heinrich mine was flooded with run-off water from a rainstorm and was out of use for about one month.8

April 2008: A spill of a large quantity of sulphuric acid at the Langer Heinrich mine raised questions about safety procedures at the mine. The Namibian newspaper was informed that a mine employee lost grip on the hose transferring the acid from a truck to a storage facility. The employee apparently fled to call for help, after which a forklift dumped a large quantity of caustic soda on the spill to neutralise the acid. The result was explosive ‒ a series of loud bangs could be heard from a distance, but nobody was injured.9

16 March 2009: A chemical fireball and explosion killed two workers and badly injured another at the Kayelekera mine. Over the next two days, the fatal accident prompted 200 contract workers to strike over pay and working conditions. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists noted in a 2015 report that three more workers, including a contractor, died in other incidents at Kayelekera in the years after the fireball.10

18 March 2009: Malawian police fired tear-gas at workers at the Kayelekera mine construction site. The workers, mostly casual laborers, were on a sit-in since the previous day to pressure management for better working conditions. The strike forced Paladin management to temporarily shut down the mine and evacuate its senior managers to Lilongwe.11

August 2009: Neville Huxham from Paladin Energy Africa said: “We’re taking the uranium out of the ground, we’re exporting it to be used for productive purposes, so we should be getting a medal for cleaning up the environment.”12

September 2009: Australia’s Fairfax press reported on the Kayelekera mine: “The company’s approach has caused friction with local non-government groups, which took legal action to impose tougher controls on the project in 2007. The case was settled out of court. Since then it has been accused of lax safety standards (three workers have died in accidents this year) and failing to bring promised benefits to local communities …”13

Australian-based scientific consultant Howard Smith said regulations were ”essentially a self-regulation system, which will ultimately result in releases [of contaminated water] that are under-reported, uncontrolled and hidden from the affected public.”13

October 2009: Fourth death in 2009 at Kayelekera. The company said that an employee had died at the mine as a result of a mini-bus rollover on October 7. Paladin said 19 people including the driver were injured, with 15 admitted to hospital. Paladin advised on August 25 that a construction contractor had died at the mine, also as a result of a motor vehicle incident. The company reported on April 5 that two sub-contractors had died in a flash fire at the mine construction site on March 16.14

September 2010: Paladin orders miners to work at Kayelekera in spite of a shortage of dust masks. A Nyasa Times undercover journalist who visited the mine on 23 September 2010 found that most miners did not wear masks, and their hands and face were caked with uranium ore. The workers protested to management about the development. The geology superintendent of the mine, Johan De Bruin, confirmed the lack of dust masks. In a September 23 email sent to mine workers, he ordered staff to continue working despite the shortage of dust masks. “Mining is a 24 hour operation and cannot be stopped as a result of a shortage of available dust masks,” said De Bruin in his September 23 email.15

June 2011: A truck driver died in an accident at the Kayelekera mine ‒ the Tanzanian national died after the truck he was driving struck a water tank.16

15 August 2011: Progress on Expansion Phase Three of the Langer Heinrich mine came to a standstill after employees of the main contractor, Grinaker LTA, downed tools due to grievances related to impending layoffs. According to a workers committee representative, more than 600 employees stopped work at noon on August 15 and continued to strike the following day.17

2012: CRIIRAD, a French NGO specialising in independent radiation monitoring, conducted radiation monitoring activities around the Kayelekera mine. Its report stated: “CRIIRAD discovered hot spots in the environment of the mine and a high uranium concentration in the water flowing from a stream located below the open pit and entering the Sere river. Results that relate to the radiological monitoring of the environment performed by the company are kept secret. The company should publish on its web site all environmental reports. No property right can be invoked to prevent public access to Paladin environmental reports (especially as Malawi State holds 15 % of the shares of the uranium mine). It is shocking to discover that million tonnes of radioactive and chemically polluting wastes (especially tailings) are disposed of on a plateau with very negative geological and hydrogeological characteristics.”18

11 May 2012: Workers at Kayelekera went on strike over labor conditions: The local workers told Nyasa Times that they were demanding a pay increase from Paladin. Workers downed tools on May 11, halting production at the site. On May 16, Paladin announced than an agreement in principle was achieved for a return to work by the striking employees.19

December 2012: Paladin threatened 75-year old Australian pensioner Noel Wauchope with legal action for posting on her antinuclear.net website an article critical about Paladin’s operations in Malawi. The threat backfired when it was publicised in the widely-read Fairfax press in Australia. Fairfax business columnist Michael West wrote: “The price of Noel Wauchope’s concern for the people Karonga was a long and intimidating letter of demand from Ashurst on behalf of the uranium company Paladin Energy … “20

2013: A detailed report by the African Forum and Network on Debt and Development states:21

“Consistent with what many analysts and commentators have said, this research study unequivocally established that the benefits that Malawi, as a country, is gaining from the deal made with Kayelekera are tangential and dismal. Among the reasons why benefits are skewed more favourably towards the mining company are that the negotiations were done hastily under an atmosphere that was not transparent. Furthermore, the government officials involved were not experienced and were no match for the skilled negotiators for Paladin.

“Above and beyond this, the major problem that contributed to the disproportionate sharing of benefits are the country’s archaic laws that fail to hold the Multinational Corporation (MNCs) more accountable to pay taxes and remit profits to Malawi. … The investment incentives offered to Paladin have revenue implications to the Malawi government. These include; (1) 15% carried equity in project company to be transferred to the Republic of Malawi, (2) Corporate tax rate reduced from 30% to an effective 27.5%, (3) 10% resource rent reduced to zero, (4) Reduced Royalty rate from 5% to 1.5% (years 1 to 3) and 3% (thereafter), (5) removal of 17 % import VAT or import duty during the stability period, (6) immediate 100% capital write off for tax purposes, The capitalisation (debt: equity) ratio of 4:1 for the project, and (7) stability period of 10 years where there will be no increase to tax and royalty regime and commitment to provide the benefit of any tax and royalty decrease during the period. This clause in the agreement statement implies amortization of profits. This means that there shall be a reduction or cancellation of taxes to be paid during future years of subsequent profits as a means to compensate the debt accrued by the company during years of registering losses.”

27 June 2013: About 300 workers, including mine staff and contractor employees, picketed at the Langer Heinrich mine, protesting the way they were being treated and paid. The protesting workers and media were barred from the mine site where the demonstration was supposed to take place.22

July 2013: UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, rubbished the Kayelekera uranium mine deal between Malawi and Paladin, saying Malawi had a raw deal that is robbing the poor. He said that over the lifespan of the mine, Malawi is expected to lose almost US$281 million. “Mining companies are exempt from customs duty, excise duty, value added taxes on mining machinery, plant and equipment. They can also sign special deals on the rate of royalty owed to the government,” he said.23

30 July 2013: An employee died in an accident in the Kayelekera mine’s engineering workshop after being struck in the chest by a light vehicle wheel he was inflating.24

October 2013: The Opposition People’s Transformation Party (PETRA) appealed to government authorities to renegotiate what it called the “stinking development agreement” between Malawi and Paladin regarding the Kayelekera mine.25

3 October 2013: Three miners were injured at Langer Heinrich following a “serious electrical incident”. Paladin said two of the workers received significant burns while a third worker suffered smoke inhalation. One of the workers was flown to South Africa for treatment.26 On October 30, Paladin announced that the injured worker flown to South Africa had died in hospital.27

February 2014: Paladin reported that a truck carrying a container of uranium from Kayelekera overturned. The container fell loose and was punctured by a tree stump, and a “small quantity” of uranium oxide concentrate spilled out. Paladin said the uranium and the soil it came in touch with were removed and taken back to the tailings dam at the mine.28

2 October 2014: About 50 employees staged a protest at the Langer Heinrich Uranium (LHU) mine’s head office in Swakopmund before handing over a petition listing their complaints. Workers employed by companies sub-contracted to LHU claim they had been mistreated at work. The workers from Sure Cast, Gecko Drilling, LBS, Quick Investment, RVH and NEC Stahl claimed they were made to work without benefits, such as medical aid, transport allowances and pension.29

November 2014: Paladin came under fire from a coalition of 33 Malawian civil society groups and chiefs over its proposal to discharge mining sludge into the Sere and North Rukuru rivers. The toxic substances that would flow from the tailings pond at the Kayelekera mine into Lake Malawi 50 kms downstream include waste uranium rock, acids, arsenic and other chemicals used in processing the uranium ore, the coalition said. The lake provides water for drinking and domestic use to millions of Malawians. Part of the lake is protected as a national park.30

2015: A report by the office of Namibia’s Prime Minister said there is a lack of safety at the Langer Heinrich mine and that workers are not aware of policies, rules and procedures as outlined in the radiation management plan.31

January 2015: At the Kayelekera mine, heavy rain caused a liner in the plant run-off tank to rupture, releasing some 500 cubic metres (500,000 litres) of material to the bunded areas of the site. Up to 50 litres may have overtopped one of the containment bunds.32

February 2015: About 60 permanent employees of the Langer Heinrich mine participated in a demonstration to hand over a petition to mine management. Employees sought the removal of the manager for human resources on allegations of victimising employees as well as disregarding employees’ safety. They also accused him of implementing a new salary structure without union agreement. The workers, through the Mineworkers’ Union of Namibia (MUN), also demanded the removal of the mine’s managing director, saying he had total disregard for the union. Workers also said the mine never implemented recommendations made after a 2013 accident that claimed the life of a miner. The workers’ petition said: “Our members are exposed to safety hazards. The company does not properly investigate incidents at the mine.” The workers also alleged that the removal of contract workers from the mine resulted in a lack of rest and increase in fatigue.33

April 2015: Despite opposition from a group of 33 civil society organizations, Paladin began discharging treated waste water from the Kayelekera mine into the Sere River. The discharge of contaminated water was expected to take place for three months. Paladin decided to discharge the waste because the dam at the Kayelekera mine was full, raising the possibility of unplanned and uncontrolled discharges after heavy rains.34

June 2015: A report by ActionAid stated that Malawi ‒ the world’s poorest country ‒ lost out on US$43 million revenue from the Kayelekera mine over the previous six years due to “harmful exemptions from royalty payments from the Malawi government, and tax planning using treaty shopping by Paladin.”35

Australia’s Fairfax press reported: “Between 2009 and 2014, Paladin Energy moved $US183 million out of Malawi to a holding company in the Netherlands and then on to Australia. A 15-page report by London-based ActionAid has found the Dutch transfers and a special royalties deal – in which Malawi’s mining minister agreed to drop the initial tax rate applied to the uranium mine from 5 per cent to 1.5 per cent – have cost the Malawi public $US43 million. In Africa’s poorest nation, where per capita GDP is just $US226 a year and life expectancy 55, that money could provide the equivalent of 39,000 new teachers or 17,000 nurses, according to the aid group.”36

December 2015: Matildah Mkandawire from Citizens for Justice wrote: “In August this year, Citizens for Justice and Action Aid Malawi, with support from the Tilitonse Fund, organized an interface meeting with the local communities, government representatives at district level and Paladin representatives. The aim of this meeting was to discuss the concerns of the community regarding the failure of Paladin to stick to the agreements in the MOU. Paladin cancelled with us at the 11th hour claiming they needed a formal letter of invitation and not the one they got from the community. The meeting had to go ahead without them although this left the community furious as the issues they wanted to raise were key to their health and sanitation, environmental health and social well-being. The lack of clean water, and the delay in providing educational and health facilities as agreed, spoke volumes of the company’s lack of responsibility for the community it operates in.”37

2016: A human rights body in Malawi sued Paladin Africa Ltd for alleged damage the Kayelekera mine has caused to some miners and the surrounding communities in Karonga district. The Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation accused Paladin of not prioritising the welfare of its employees and the community.38

16 June 2016: Security guards at the mothballed Kayelekera mine downed tools over poor working conditions.39

September 2016: Human Rights Watch released a detailed report on mines in the Karonga region of Malawi, including the Kayelekera uranium mine: “Using Karonga district in northern Malawi as a case study, the report documents how Malawi currently lacks adequate legal standards and safeguards to ensure the necessary balance between developing the mining industry and protecting the rights of local communities. It examines how weak government oversight and lack of information leave local communities unprotected and uninformed about the risks and opportunities associated with mining.”40

20 December 2016: Eight Tanzanians were arrested while travelling to participate in a fact-finding mission of the Kayelekera mine. They are from the area where the Mkuju River uranium mine is planned in Tanzania. They were accused of trespassing, spying and working as foreign agents. They were denied bail and held in sub-standard conditions; their legal access was impeded and their legal team harassed with death threats and the mysterious disappearance of their laptops; their legal defence team was prevented from fully cross-questioning witnesses; and the trial was postponed on six occasions, each time disrupting the defence team that travelled from Lilongwe and Dar-es-Salaam. In April 2017, after almost five months in detention, the eight people were convicted of Criminal Trespassing and carrying out a reconnaissance operation without a permit, and given suspended four-month sentences.41

January 2017: Paladin and the Malawi government rejected requests to disclose the results of water monitoring performed in the surroundings of the Kayelekera mine.42

References:

  1. WISE-Uranium, ‘Paladin Energy Ltd Hall of Infamy’, www.wise-uranium.org/ucpalhi.html
  2. ‘Paladin’s social and environmental record, https://wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/847/nuclear-monitor-847-21-july-2017
  3. http://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/search/display/display.w3p;query=Id%3A%22committees%2Fcommjnt%2F12858%2F0004%22
  4. Patrick Bond, 24 Dec 2006, ZNet.

Paladin persecutes Australian photojournalist in Malawi

  1. Background on Recent Developments at the Kayelekera Uranium Mine, 2007, www.minesandcommunities.org/article.php?a=1429
  2. MUA News, 15 Jan 2007, ‘Australian Company Uses Malawian Police Against Critics’, http://mua.org.au/news/general/malawi.html
  3. Mineral Policy Institute, March 2007, ‘Paladin Resources Kayelekera Uranium Project in Malawi, Africa would not be approved in Australia, concludes independent reviewers’, http://web.archive.org/web/20080719214944/http://www.mpi.org.au/campaigns/waste/malawi/
  4. Allgemeine Zeitung, 31 March 2008; www.wise-uranium.org/umopafr.html#LANGERH
  5. Namibian, 25 April 2008; www.wise-uranium.org/umopafr.html#LANGERH
  6. Will Fitzgibbon, Martha M. Hamilton and Cécile Schilis-Gallego / International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, 10 July 2015, ‘Australian Mining Companies Digging A Deadly Footprint in Africa’, www.icij.org/project/fatal-extraction/australian-mining-companies-digging-deadly-footprint-africa
  7. Nyasa Times, 18 March 2009; The Nation, 19 March 2009.
    12. IPS, 24 August 2009.
  8. Tom Hyland, 20 Sept 2009, ‘Miner accused on slack safety’, www.smh.com.au/world/miner-accused-on-slack-safety-20090919-fw3q.html
  9. Sydney Morning Herald, 8 Oct 2009; www.wise-uranium.org/umopafr.html#MW; www.wise-uranium.org/umopafr.html#KAYELEKERA
  10. Nyasa Times, 25 Sep 2010; www.wise-uranium.org/umopafr.html#MW
  11. Nyasa Times, 19 June 2011; www.wise-uranium.org/umopafr.html#MW
  12. The Namibian, 17 Aug 2011; www.wise-uranium.org/umopafr.html#LANGERH
  13. Bruno Chareyron, 2015, ‘Impact of the Kayelekera uranium mine, Malawi’. EJOLT Report No. 21, www.ejolt.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/150222_Report-21.pdf
  14. Nyasa Times, 11 May 2012; www.wise-uranium.org/umopafr.html#MW; www.miningweekly.com/article/kayelekera-production-back-on-track-2012-05-16
  15. http://antinuclear.net/2013/09/02/ashurst-paladin-attack-this-website-with-legal-threats/
  16. African Forum and Network on Debt and Development, 2013, ‘The Revenue Costs and Benefits of Foreign Direct Investment in the Extractive Industry in Malawi: The Case of Kayelekera Uranium Mine’, www.afrodad.org/index.php/en/resource-centre/publications/category/22-economic-governance.html
  17. The Namibian, 2 July 2013; www.wise-uranium.org/umopafr.html#LANGERH
  18. 22 July 2013, ‘End of mission statement by the Special Rapporteur on the right to food’, www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=13567&LangID=E
  19. Paladin Energy Ltd July 31, 2013; Esmarie Swanepoel, 31 July 2013, ‘Fatality at Paladin mine’, www.miningweekly.com/article/fatality-at-paladin-mine-2013-07-31
  20. Nyasa Times, 5 March 2013.
  21. Esmarie Swanepoel, 3 Oct 2013, ‘Electrical accident injures three at Langer Heinrich’, www.miningweekly.com/article/accident-injures-3-at-langer-heinrich-2013-10-03
  22. www.wise-uranium.org/umopafr.html#LANGERH
  23. 17 Feb 2014, ‘Product Shipment Incident near Kayelekera Mine, Malawi’, https://finance.yahoo.com/news/paladin-energy-ltd-product-shipment-120000130.html
  24. Namib Times, 7 Oct 2014; www.wise-uranium.org/umopafr.html#LANGERH
  25. Environmental News Service, 25 Nov 2014, ‘Uranium Mine Sludge Discharge Permit Threatens Lake Malawi’, http://ens-newswire.com/2014/11/25/uranium-mine-sludge-discharge-permit-threatens-lake-malawi/
  26. The Namibian, 10 July 2015; www.opm.gov.na; www.wise-uranium.org/umopafr.html#LANGERH
  27. Esmarie Swanepoel, 10 Feb 2015, ‘Kayelekera no threat to environment – Paladin’, www.miningweekly.com/article/kayelekera-no-threat-to-environment—paladin-2015-02-10
    Esmarie Swanepoel, 7 Jan 2015, ‘Paladin reports spill at Malawi mine after minor storm’, www.miningweekly.com/article/paladin-reports-spill-at-malawi-mine-after-minor-storm-2015-01-07

Sarah-Jane Tasker, 8 Jan 2015, ‘Paladin Energy alerts ASX to spill at Malawi uranium mine’, www.theaustralian.com.au/business/mining-energy/paladin-energy-alerts-asx-to-spill-at-malawi-uranium-mine/story-e6frg9df-1227177696428

  1. New Era, 20 Feb 2015; www.wise-uranium.org/umopafr.html#LANGERH
  2. www.wise-uranium.org/umopafr.html#MW

Sarah-Jane Tasker, 8 Jan 2015, ‘Paladin Energy alerts ASX to spill at Malawi uranium mine’, www.theaustralian.com.au/business/mining-energy/paladin-energy-alerts-asx-to-spill-at-malawi-uranium-mine/story-e6frg9df-1227177696428

  1. ActionAid, 17 June 2015, ‘An Extractive Affair: How one Australian mining company’s tax dealings are costing the world’s poorest country millions’, www.actionaid.org/sites/files/actionaid/malawi_tax_report_updated_table_16_june.pdf
  2. Heath Aston, 11 July 2015, ‘Australian miner accused of dodging tax in world’s poorest country’, www.theage.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/australian-miner-accused-of-dodging-tax-in-worlds-poorest-country-20150710-gi6uzv.html
  3. Matildah M. Mkandawire, 17 Dec 2015, ‘Uranium mining in Malawi: the case of Kayelekera’, Nuclear Monitor #816, www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/816/uranium-mining-malawi-case-kayelekera
  4. Norbert Mzembe, 22 June 2016, ‘Malawi: Paladin Africa Sued for ‘Gross Damage”, www.minesandcommunities.org/article.php?a=13429

Capital Radio Malawi, 22 June 2016, www.capitalradiomalawi.com/news/item/6349-paladin-africa-sued-for-gross-damage 
www.wise-uranium.org/umopafr.html#MW

  1. Nyasa Times, 17 June 2016; www.wise-uranium.org/umopafr.html#MW
  2. Human Rights Watch, 27 Sept 2016, ‘”They Destroyed Everything”: Mining and Human Rights in Malawi’, www.hrw.org/report/2016/09/27/they-destroyed-everything/mining-and-human-rights-malawi or www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/accessible_document/malawi0916_etr_web_1.pdf
  3. David Fig, 2 April 2017, ‘Why Malawi’s case against the Tanzanian eight is a travesty of justice’, https://theconversation.com/why-malawis-case-against-the-tanzanian-eight-is-a-travesty-of-justice-75555

Menschenrechte 3000 e.V., 28 Feb 2017, ‘Report on 8 Tanzanian Environmental and Human Rights Defenders arbitrarily detained in Malawi since 22. Dec. 2017’, www.uranium-network.org/images/pics/REPORT-MR3000-TUAM-update-1.pdf

Front Line Defenders, www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/case/8-tanzanian-environmental-defenders-convicted

www.wise-uranium.org/umopafr.html#KAYELEKERAVT

Malawi Times, 12 April 2017.

Bright Phiri & Nicely Msowoya, ‘REPORT on the continuation of court case against 8 Tanzanians detained in Malawi, on 13. and 14. February 2017’, www.wise-uranium.org/pdf/PhiriMsowoya17214.pdf

  1. BBC, 25 Jan 2017, ‘Fears of river poisoning in Malawi’, www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-38751257

www.wise-uranium.org/umopafr.html#MW

 

‘Dam busters: Aborigines battle BHP over water rights’, and ‘Why BHP is facing a minefield’

‘Dam busters: Aborigines battle BHP over water rights’

Chris Mitchell, 4 March 2022, The Australian

https://www.theaustralian.com.au/business/mining-energy/dam-busters-aborigines-battle-bhp-over-water-rights/news-story/5771234ab2fca122009e83720ecbaf01

In the driest state in the driest continent on earth, tremors from Rio Tinto’s destruction of the Juukan Gorge sacred site have travelled through the outback dust to buffet BHP, the globe’s second biggest miner – ironically over water.

The May 2020 Juukan fiasco has put the spotlight on BHP’s giant Olympic Dam project, its use of Great Artesian Basin water and its ongoing failure to strike financial agreements with native title claimants on its giant mining lease.

BHP is defending legal rights providing it free access to artesian basin water and a mining tenement granted before the High Court’s Mabo decision up-ended land rights in Australia three decades ago.

But Indigenous advocates say the Juukan fiasco has changed mining and the way it interacts with heritage issues and argue BHP needs to take into account developments in native title recognition in the decades since the original leases were struck with governments in the 1980s.

BHP’s legal rights start with the 1982 Roxby Downs (Indenture Ratification) Act signed with former mine owner Western Mining. BHP inherited the rights when it bought the mine in 2005 and has almost unprecedented powers over resources and water within its 12,000sq km Stuart Shelf exploration lease.

BHP is also in discussions with native title groups about the original Olympic Dam Agreement it settled in 2008 with the Kokotha, Barngarla and Kuyani. Of these only the Kokotha have been granted formal native title over parts of BHP’s Stuart Shelf exploration area.

Essentially BHP’s problem now is how to balance the very valuable 40-year-old legal rights it has under the indenture with later rights found in a native title determination in favour of the Kokotha in 2014 and the rights of the other two claim groups. It is also negotiating with the Arabana and the Diyari (sometimes spelt Dieri) over other their rights associated with the Mound Springs.

In the absence of firm commitments for change by BHP, Indigenous groups and conservationists are becoming increasing frustrated at what they see as stonewalling by the mining giant.

The report into Rio Tinto’s Juukan Caves destruction, released in October and titled A Way Forward, has shone a light on indigenous engagement in the mining industry. It contained criticism of BHP by Aboriginal interests, including the Arabana tribe, and South Australian conservation groups. They focused on Olympic Dam’s heavy reliance on water from the Great Artesian Basin and expressed concerns it represented an environment risk – particularly to the Mound Springs Aboriginal heritage sites north of the mine.

“Unfortunately our springs are disappearing … The cause … is water taken from the GAB by BHP’s mine at Roxby Downs,” Arabana chairperson Brenda Underwood told the Juukan Caves report.

While BHP and the state government believe the springs remain healthy, environmentalists fear a possible expansion of the Oak Dam copper-gold-uranium project, 65km southeast of Olympic Dam, could take daily water use from the basin to well beyond 50 million litres a day. BHP says it is averaging 34 million litres a day now. BHP moved to allay concerns in February, backing a $15m “study”, partly funded by state and federal governments, into a desalination plant proposed for the Spencer Gulf to pump water to the state’s northern mines.

But conservation and Indigenous groups see the move as a bid to alleviate political pressure on the company even as it tries to protect its rights under the 1982 (Indenture Ratification) Act, which confers almost unprecedented powers over resources and water within its 12,000sq km Stuart Shelf exploration lease.

Conservationists say BHP is trying to control the water agenda, to maintain its privileges under the Indenture Act. But some hope it will be pragmatic enough to cut water demand from the basin if it eventually decides to proceed with Oak Dam.

Asked last week if BHP management was formally committed to ending Great Artesian Basin water use, a spokesperson could not point to any firm commitments.

“We continuously monitor and publicly report our water draw under a program approved by the South Australian government,” the BHP spokesperson said.

Environment campaigner and consultant David Noonan, who provided extensive submissions to the Juukan inquiry, is sceptical of the desalination plant announcement first published in Adelaide’s The Advertiser in February.

“BHP’s Oak Dam copper-uranium project usurps due process. BHP is claiming 1982 legal privileges (under) the Indenture Act special water licence grant of priority rights to extract … GAB public water resources free of charge for multi-decades.”

Noonan says even if the desalination plant were built BHP could be taking Great Artesian Basin water until the end of the decade. He wants to hear a formal commitment from senior management about alternative water sources.

The company’s position is not easy. It paid for a project that came with the rights set out in the indenture and these rights have a very substantial economic value to shareholders. Yet as Juukan shows, much corporate damage can be done when short cuts are taken in the area of Aboriginal heritage.

A BHP spokesperson said on heritage issues, “We recognise that the framework for protecting Aboriginal cultural heritage in South Australia can be improved. Our submission to the (SA) parliamentary inquiry (last year) suggests ways to further strengthen the 1988 Act, including requiring land users and traditional owners to prepare management plans, providing rights of appeal, and increasing financial penalties for breaches.”

The company committed last year to updating the indenture, which was legislated on the 1979 Heritage Act.

BHP has publicly said it will work with the government to update the indenture in line with the 1988 Act, with which most of the State’s miners must comply. The Kokotha fought a long battle to win their native title determination in 2014 after a claim was lodged in 1996.

Kokotha directors say dealing with BHP on the Olympic Dam Agreement before and after their native title court win has been challenging. At this point they are not receiving mining royalties and are unhappy with employment opportunities for Kokotha people.

BHP is powerful in South Australia. There has been a flow of senior company managers into the bureaucracy and vice versa for many years under both sides of politics.

Premier Steven Marshall is Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, and well regarded by stakeholders.

BHP paid the South Australian government royalties of $136m last year. Its Olympic Dam project 560km north of Adelaide is the state’s largest mining venture and the world’s biggest uranium mine, a global top four copper mine and producer of gold and lead.

But it would be fair to say native title holders and groups with established heritage interests do not wield the sort of power in Adelaide that big miners do.

On royalty payments, BHP says its 2008 Olympic Dam agreement was originally negotiated for the proposed Olympic Dam expansion (ODX) that was shelved in 2020 for cost reasons and that a new agreement needs to be worked out. ODX a was to include an open pit 4.1km long, 3.5km wide and 1km deep.

The company’s Aboriginal engagement team are mindful expectations have changed across the industry since Juukan and BHP will need to be seen to be engaging seriously on the expectations of traditional owners and groups with prior interests in heritage sites.

Some among the Kokotha believe that like the Indenture Act itself, an Olympic Dam agreement negotiated before the Kokotha achieved native title should be written off completely and an entirely new agreement established.

BHP’s leadership is facing a different set of circumstances from either 2005 when it bought the mine or 1982 when the indenture was legislated.

Its commitment to try to comply with the 1988 Heritage Act could create an opportunity for the Kokotha, as native title holder, to demand more power over Olympic Dam heritage issues given it has just been appointed a RARB (Registered Aboriginal Representative Body) with formal power over heritage determinations in its native title area. Legal documents considered by the Kokotha board late last year make it clear one option now is to seek an entirely new Olympic Dam agreement.

The Kokotha board has also considered options for how its RARB status may work in the interests of the other ODA signatories, the Barngarla and the Kuyani.

BHP has flagged some changes to the way it operates that could reduce its own power over its own asset.

BHP’s new local Indigenous engagement boss, Allan James, understands exactly how important it is to the company and a possible expansion to Oak Dam that BHP is seen to be negotiating with traditional owners in good faith. A Way Forward says mining companies need to ensure native title holders give “free, prior and informed consent” for future projects. This will also make miners work harder to improve the skills of board members on registered Native Title Bodies Corporate and to ensure they share internal company knowledge with traditional owners.

James is himself a native title holder from the northern Goldfields in WA where he was born and raised as a Wongi/Yamatji man. He was brought in to oversee local engagement across Australia four months ago and has previously worked for Rio and Newmont.

“We have a number of local traditional owners involved in this team and participating on the front line in these negotiations. The organisation is really serious about how we approach engagement. We are out there on the ground, having these really difficult conversations walking in both worlds. We are sitting in an industry perspective but we also know we wear a community hat.”

It remains to be seen if BHP’s senior management will prove as receptive to the changing expectations of miners in Aboriginal social performance as those who work in its engagement team – and traditional owners – want the company to be.
As for the state government, there seems to be little pressure on BHP. A spokesman this week said: “BHP currently complies with its obligations to the government but if its operations were proposed to change, then its obligations would also be reconsidered.”

But Michael Turner, a former director of Kokotha and current adviser on the Kokotha Native Title Compensation Settlement Trust and the Kokotha Charitable Trust, says he has been dealing with BHP for much of his adult life and the experience has not been positive.

“Compared with dealing with OZ Minerals there is just no comparison really. In terms of our agreement with OZ Minerals we are all one. We successfully negotiated a long-term agreement between the two parties with little involvement of lawyers. We worked directly with OZ Minerals and the agreement took just over 12 months,” Turner said.

OZ Minerals provides compensation, employment opportunities and long-term educational packages including scholarships to the Kokotha community from its Carapateena copper mine operations site. “The relationship between the Kokotha and OZ Minerals is very respectful,” Turner said.

“Don’t get me wrong. We have had our ups and downs but overall it’s been great.” Negotiations on BHP’s Olympic Dam Agreement had been disappointing.

“We have been calling for a review of the Olympic Dam agreement for many years and it has constantly been deferred. They’re refusing to move forward but we have continually engaged with BHP. It would be great if BHP could keep to its word and respect the wishes of the Kokotha people and review the ODA for the benefit of generations to come,” Turner said.

Former Kokotha Aboriginal Corporation deputy chair Chris Larkin, a director on the Kokotha Culture and Heritage Committee, doubts that BHP is negotiating in good faith.

“While Kokotha’s lawyers think BHP’s negotiating with them in good faith BHP is backdooring Kokotha by harassing the government to try to extend the Indenture Act,” he said.

But a spokesperson for BHP said: “The ODA remains in effect notwithstanding the determination of native title, and requires all three groups to be consulted. While this can be complex at times, we have processes in place … We will continue to work collaboratively and respectfully with all parties …”

“BHP will continue to work … on employment, training, business and community investment opportunities …” the spokesperson said.


‘Why BHP is facing a minefield’

Chris Mitchell, 5 March 2022, The Advertiser

https://todayspaper.adelaidenow.com.au/infinity/article_popover_share.aspx?guid=23a5b7bd-e6d5-4a82-972e-347f65874b3a

Australia’s biggest company and the world’s second biggest miner, BHP, may disappoint conservationists and Aboriginal native title holders who had hoped for commitments to reform of heritage issues and underground water use at its Olympic Dam mine before the March 19 state election BHP, the Big Australian, with market capitalisation of $230bn, paid the state government royalties of $136m last year. Its Olympic Dam project 560km north of Adelaide is South Australia’s largest mining venture and the world’s biggest uranium mine, a global top-four copper mine and producer of gold and lead. BHP is powerful in SA.

Premier Steven Marshall is Aboriginal Affairs Minister but it would be fair to say native title holders do not wield the sort of power in Adelaide that big miners do.
Yet BHP has flagged some changes to the way it operates that could reduce its own power over its own asset.

Under the 1982 Roxby Downs (Indenture Ratification) Act signed with former mine owner Western Mining, BHP, which bought the mine in 2005, has almost unprecedented powers over resources and water within its 12,000sq km Stuart Shelf exploration lease.

BHP has been criticised by conservation groups and Aboriginal interests in last year’s report into rival Rio Tinto’s destruction of Juukan Gorge in Western Australia. The report includes criticism from the Arabana tribe of the mine’s heavy reliance on water from the Great Artesian Basin (GAB), and particularly from the so-called “Mound Springs” Aboriginal heritage sites north of the mine.

On February 15, The Advertiser revealed BHP would back a new $15m study, partly funded by state and federal governments, into a Spencer Gulf desalination plant to pump water to SA’s northern mines. But BHP is still far short of publicly committing to end its use of GAB water.

Conservationists say BHP is trying to control the water agenda, to maintain its privileges under the Indenture Act. But some hope it will be pragmatic enough to cut water demand from the GAB if it eventually decides to proceed with its Oak Dam copper-gold-uranium mine 65km southeast of Olympic.

Asked last week if BHP was formally committed to ending GAB water use, a spokesman said: “We continuously monitor and publicly report our water draw under a program approved by the SA government.”

BHP is not just under pressure for environmental reasons. It is in discussion with three native title groups about the Olympic Dam Agreement it settled in 2008 with the Kokatha, Barngarla and Kuyani.

Of these, only the Kokatha have been granted formal native title over parts of BHP’s Stuart Shelf.

BHP’s problem now is how to balance the very valuable 40-year-old legal rights it has under the indenture with rights found in a native title determination in favour of the Kokatha in 2014.

The company committed last year to updating the indenture, which was legislated on the 1979 Heritage Act.

BHP has publicly said it will work with the government to update the indenture in line with the 1988 Act, with which most of the state’s miners must comply.

The Kokatha fought a long, 18-year battle to win their native title in 2014. Kokatha directors say dealing with BHP on the ODA before and after their native title court win has been challenging.

At this point, they are not receiving mining royalties and are unhappy with employment opportunities for Kokatha people.

Michael Turner, a former Kokatha director and current adviser on the Kokatha Native Title Compensation Settlement and Kokatha Charitable trusts, says he has been dealing with BHP for much of his adult life.

“Compared with dealing with OzMinerals, there is just no comparison, really,” he said. “In terms of our agreement with OzMinerals, we are all one. We successfully negotiated a long-term agreement between the two parties with little involvement of lawyers.”

OzMinerals provides compensation, employment and long-term educational packages to the Kokatha community from its Carapateena copper mine. “The relationship between the Kokatha and OzMinerals is very respectful,” Mr Turner said.

But negotiations on BHP’s Olympic Dam Agreement had been disappointing.
“We have been calling for a review of the ODA for many years and it has constantly been deferred,” he said.

“They’re refusing to move forward. It would be great if BHP could keep to its word and respect the wishes of the Kokatha people and review the ODA for the benefit of generations to come.”

A BHP spokesman this week said: “The ODA remains in effect notwithstanding the determination of native title, and requires all three groups to be consulted.
We will continue to work collaboratively and respectfully with all parties.”

The final report into the May 24, 2020 destruction by Australia’s second-biggest miner, Rio Tinto, of the Juukan Caves in Western Australia’s Pilbara was released in October. In it, Arabana chair Brenda Underwood says: “Unfortunately, our springs are disappearing. The cause … is water taken from the GAB by BHP’s mine at Roxby Downs.”

BHP and the state government believe the springs remain healthy but environmentalists fear a possible expansion to the Oak Dam could take daily GAB water use well beyond 50 million litres a day. BHP says it is averaging 34 million litres a day.

Environment campaigner and consultant David Noonan, who provided submissions to the Juukan Inquiry, is sceptical of the desalination plant announcement.

Mr Noonan says even if it was built, BHP could be taking GAB water until the end of the decade. He wants to hear a formal commitment about alternative water sources.
BHP’s Aboriginal engagement team is mindful expectations have changed across the industry since Juukan and BHP will need to be seen to be engaging seriously with traditional owners. Some believe an ODA negotiated before the Kokatha achieved native title should be written off and a new agreement established.

The company’s position is not easy. It paid for a project that came with indenture rights that have a substantial economic value to shareholders.

Yet, as Juukan shows, much corporate damage can be done in the area of Aboriginal heritage.

“We recognise that the framework for protecting Aboriginal cultural heritage in SA can be improved,” a BHP spokesman said.

Mining is changing in the wake of Juukan. Rio Tinto’s decision to blow up an area sacred to traditional owners – which led to the sacking of its global CEO, Jean-Sebastien Jacques, and two senior local executives – is still reverberating around the industry.

BHP’s new Indigenous engagement boss, Allan James, knows it is important to be seen to be negotiating with traditional owners in good faith.

“We have a number of local traditional owners involved in this team and participating on the frontline in these negotiations,” says Mr James, a Wongi/Yamatji man from WA. “We are out there on the ground, having these really difficult conversations, walking in both worlds. We are sitting in an industry perspective but we also know we wear a community hat.”

It remains to be seen if BHP’s management will prove as receptive to the changing expectations as those who work in its Aboriginal engagement team – and traditional owners – want it to be.

A BHP spokesman said it had invested $2m in Indigenous grants in SA in the past 18 months and spent $3.3m with Indigenous contractors this financial year. He said the company had taken more than 50 traditional owner recruits into Olympic Dam since 2020.

Fake, dishonest ‘Australian Greens for Nuclear Energy’ group

Tyrone D’Lisle, spokesperson for ‘Australian Greens for Nuclear Energy’ despite not being a member of the Australian Greens.

The Australian Greens have strong, principled anti-nuclear policies (with some obvious allowances for the beneficial uses of nuclear technology e.g. nuclear medicine).

A group called ‘Australian Greens for Nuclear Energy‘ has nothing to do with the Australian Greens. The spokesperson for the group, Tyrone D’Lisle, is NOT a member of the Australian Greens. He resigned as convener of the Queensland Young Greens in 2013 following behaviour which he attributed to stress and exhaustion. A Greens representative said: “Mr D’Lisle’s views do not represent Greens policies.” D’Lisle resigned from the Greens altogether in 2017.

It is unclear if there are ANY members of the Australian Greens in ‘Australian Greens for Nuclear Energy’. The group is either partially fake (it includes non-members of the Greens) or completely fake (with NO members of the Greens). We do not know if the group is breaking any state or federal laws by calling itself ‘Australian Greens for Nuclear Energy’ when some or all members of the group are not members of the Australian Greens.

We’ve only come across two people who identify as members of ‘Australian Greens for Nuclear Energy’. They may be the only two people in this group. ‘Australian Greens for Nuclear Energy’ acknowledge that they are a “relatively small group”.

Update: ‘Australian Greens for Nuclear Energy’ claim that the ‘real’ name of their group is ‘Greens for Nuclear Energy Australia’ but they can’t change their facebook group name ‘Australian Greens for Nuclear Energy’! Evidently the group has tried to change its name, an implicit acknowledgement that they have been falsely misrepresenting themselves as members of the Australian Greens and as a sub-group of the Australian Greens political party.

Furthermore, they are shifting their propaganda over to new sites called ‘Australians for Nuclear Energy’ … another implicit acknowledgement that they have been falsely misrepresenting themselves as members of the Australian Greens and as a sub-group of the Australian Greens political party.

It was only after Friends of the Earth exposed the fakery of this ‘Australian Greens for Nuclear Energy’ group that they announced that their ‘real’ name is ‘Greens for Nuclear Energy Australia’ and decided to shift their propaganda to new sites which make no mention of the Greens.

What to make of the new name ‘Australians for Nuclear Energy’? As far as we know there are only two members in the group, so it should be called ‘Two Australians for Nuclear Energy’. Or to use their own terminology, ‘A Relatively Small Number of Australians for Nuclear Energy’.

The Big Lie

‘Australian Greens for Nuclear Energy’ lie. For example, they claim that “senior people within environmental organisations like Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth have stated they don’t want to change [their position regarding nuclear power] because they will lose funding.”

D’Lisle has been asked on countless occasions to substantiate or retract that claim but he has done neither. There is no truth to the claim. It is a fabrication. It is a lie.

D’Lisle claims he was not responsible for the lie but he refuses to say 1) who was responsible for it, 2) who else apart from him posts on facebook as ‘Australian Greens for Nuclear Energy’, and 3) whether anyone other than D’Lisle posts on facebook as ‘Australian Greens for Nuclear Energy’.

The claim about Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace is a dishonest fabrication and it is also defamatory. Perhaps that is why ‘Australian Greens for Nuclear Energy’ are concealing authorship of the lie.

Perhaps D’Lisle was responsible for the lie, in which case he has lied about Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace and then lied about lying. Or perhaps another member of ‘Australian Greens for Nuclear Energy’ was responsible for the lie, in which case D’Lisle is concealing the deceit of another member of his group.

D’Lisle acknowledged in correspondence with Friends of the Earth that he has zero evidence to support the accusation against Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. So why no public retraction and apology?

As for the contributions of ‘Australian Greens for Nuclear Energy’ to energy debates, it’s a concoction of misinformation, half-truths and outright lies:

* They claim that “civilian nuclear energy programs don’t lead to nuclear weapons programs” even though they repeatedly have.

* D’Lisle thinks “the world is going nuclear”. In fact, nuclear power has been stagnant for the past 30 years and its future is bleak, largely because nuclear power is far more expensive than renewables (including storage and transmission costs).

* They claim there were no radiation deaths from the Fukushima disaster DESPITE BEING WELL AWARE of the World Health Organization report which concluded that for people in the most contaminated areas in Fukushima Prefecture, the estimated increased risk for all solid cancers will be around 4% in females exposed as infants; a 6% increased risk of breast cancer for females exposed as infants; a 7% increased risk of leukaemia for males exposed as infants; and for thyroid cancer among females exposed as infants, increased risk of up to 70%.

* They make dishonest claims about the Chernobyl death toll. They suggest a death toll of less than 100. Blatant deceit. They ignore studies such as: the estimate of 16,000 cancer deaths across Europe in a study published in the International Journal of Cancer, and the World Health Organization’s estimate of “up to 9,000 excess cancer deaths” in Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine. For a longer discussion on pro-nuclear deceit regarding Chernobyl, click here.

* ‘Australian Greens for Nuclear Energy’ trivialise Chernobyl (and other nuclear disasters) by peddling the argument that the psychological trauma was greater than the biological effects from radiation exposure. There’s no dispute that, as the World Health Organisation states, the relocation of more than 350,000 people in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster “proved a deeply traumatic experience”. How to compare that psychological trauma to estimates of the cancer death toll from radiation exposure, such as the UN/WHO estimate of 9,000 cancer deaths in ex-Soviet states or the International Journal of Cancer study estimating 16,000 deaths across Europe? They can’t be compared. Apples and oranges. Most importantly, why on earth would anyone want to rank the biological damage and the psychological trauma from the Chernobyl disaster? Chernobyl resulted in both biological damage and psychological trauma, in spades. Psychological insult has been added to biological injury. One doesn’t negate the other.

* And they make false and indefensible claims about numerous other nuclear-related topics.

* And they support the systemic racism of the nuclear industry including the Morrison government’s current efforts to impose a national nuclear waste dump in SA despite the unanimous opposition of the Barngarla Traditional Owners.

Nuclear threats in Ukraine

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 jim.green@foe.org.au, 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.

Contents

  • Summary
  • 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
  • Safeguards
  • Cyber-warfare

Summary

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.”

Zaporizhzhia 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:

  1. The physical integrity of the facilities – whether it is the reactors, fuel ponds, or radioactive waste stores – must be maintained;
  2. All safety and security systems and equipment must be fully functional at all times;
  3. The operating staff must be able to fulfil their safety and security duties and have the capacity to make decisions free of undue pressure;
  4. There must be secure off-site power supply from the grid for all nuclear sites;
  5. There must be uninterrupted logistical supply chains and transportation to and from the sites;
  6. There must be effective on-site and off-site radiation monitoring systems and emergency preparedness and response measures; and
  7. 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.

Zaporizhzhia communications

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.

Grossi said:

“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.”

Pre-2022 concerns

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

and

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.”

Nuclear warfare

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 …”

Safeguards

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

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.

Nuclear waste and floods

Notes by Jim Green, national nuclear campaigner, Friends of the Earth Australia, Jan. 2022. jim.green@foe.org.au

1 – Preventing problems at a nuclear waste dump/store from flooding should be manageable, if and only if project management oversight and regulation is up to the task. There are serious questions about whether management and regulation of the Australian government’s proposed national nuclear waste dump/store at Kimba in SA would be adequate. The most relevant case study in Australia is the flawed ‘clean up’ of the Maralinga nuclear test site in the late 1990s, overseen by the federal government. Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. There has been no honesty or transparency about the failures at Maralinga, no attempt to learn from mistakes. Successive governments have simply lied about the problems and tried to cover them up. Expect the same at Kimba.

Flawed ‘clean-up’ of Maralinga

2 – The proposed Kimba dump will be designed to leak. Either barriers prevent leakage, in which case there is a risk of accumulation of infiltrated water resulting in corrosion of waste drums and other such problems. Or, as is the case with the Kimba proposal, there will be water outlets, i.e. it is designed to leak.

3 – Even with the expertise and resources available to ANSTO, and the importance of safely managing irradiated/spent nuclear fuel, water infiltration has been a problem at Lucas Heights. In early 1998, it was revealed that “airtight” spent fuel storage canisters had been infiltrated by water – 90 litres in one case – and corrosion had resulted. When canisters were retrieved for closer inspection, three accidents took place (2/3/98, 13/8/98, 1/2/99), all of them involving the dropping of canisters containing spent fuel while trying to transport them from the ‘dry storage’ site to another part of the Lucas Heights site. The public may never have learnt about those accidents if not for the fact that an ANSTO whistleblower told the local press. One of those accidents (1/2/99) subjected four ANSTO staff members to small radiation doses (up to 0.5 mSv).

4 – One example of flooding compromising nuclear waste: Flooding at Nine Mile Point

In July 1981, water flooded the Radwaste Processing Building containing highly radioactive waste for Unit 1 at the Nine Mile Point nuclear plant in upstate New York. The flood tipped over 55-gallon metal drums filled with highly radioactive material. The spilled contents contaminated the building’s basement such that workers would receive a lethal radiation dose in about an hour. The Unit 1 reactor had been shut down for over two years and was receiving heightened oversight attention when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) investigated the matter. But the NRC was reacting to a television news report about the hazardous condition rather than acting upon its own oversight efforts. The media spotlight resulted in this long over-looked hazard finally being remedied.

Flooding at Nine Mile Point

5 – Another example: Federal health officials agree radioactive waste in St. Louis area may be linked to cancer

The US government confirms some people in the St. Louis area may have a higher risk of getting cancer. A recent health report found some residents who grew up in areas contaminated by radioactive waste decades ago may have increased risk for bone and lung cancers, among other types of the disease. The assessment was conducted by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a branch of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tens of thousands of radioactive waste barrels, many stacked and left open to the elements, contaminated the soil and nearby Coldwater Creek which sometimes flooded the park next to people’s homes.

https://www.cbsnews.com/news/radioactive-waste-cancer-federal-health-officials-acknowledge-possible-link/

6 – Another example: US: Poison in the Vadose Zone

Waste from 1950’s and 1960’s nuclear weapons production, including more than one ton of plutonium, endangers the Snake River Plain aquifer, the largest in the western US, according to a report by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. Much of this waste is in the vadose zone (an unsaturated region of rock and soil located beneath the land surface and above the water table) but it is migrating towards the aquifer much faster than anticipated, and some of the waste is already in the aquifer. According to the report, official US government data indicate that more than one metric ton of plutonium, packaged in nothing more than cardboard boxes, wooden boxes, or 55 gallon drums, was dumped into shallow trenches on the site in the 1950s and 1960s. Rain, snow, and occasional flooding of the trenches have already caused migration of some radioactive and hazardous materials towards, and in some cases into, the aquifer. Evidence has existed for more than 25 years that these long-lived radionuclides are migrating through the vadose zone to the aquifer much faster than anticipated.

https://wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/556/us-poison-vadose-zone

7 – Another example: Radioactive thorium found at residential properties is linked to nuclear-weapons work done decades ago

Radioactive contamination has been discovered at three residential properties in the St. Louis area, adding fuel to a long-running controversy about how much damage was done to the environment and possibly people’s health by nuclear-weapons work performed there decades ago. Current and former residents of nearby areas have argued that contamination from the creek had spread into their neighborhoods during periods of flooding and they have pushed for extensive sampling of houses and yards. They also contend residents have suffered from an unusually large number of cancer cases and other maladies possibly linked to radioactive contamination. The thorium is a leftover from uranium-processing work done for the weapons program. The contamination likely was deposited by flooding from the creek, said Mr. Petersen, the Corps spokesman.

https://www.wsj.com/articles/nuclear-waste-taints-st-louis-suburb-1440361689

8 – No doubt there are plenty of other examples of nuclear waste being compromised by flooding.

Nuclear Power’s Economic Crisis and its Implications for Australia

December 2021 report by Friends of the Earth Australia, ‘Nuclear Power’s Economic Crisis and its Implications for Australia’.

The full report is available as a PDF.

The introduction (minus references and footnotes) is copied below.

INTRODUCTION & SUMMARY

Despite the abundance of evidence that nuclear power is economically uncompetitive compared to renewables, the nuclear industry and some of its supporters continue to claim otherwise. Such claims are typically based on implausible cost projections for non-existent reactor concepts. For example the Minerals Council of Australia conflates self-serving, implausible company estimates for small modular reactors (SMRs) with “robust estimates” based on “conservative assumptions”. And the Australian Nuclear Association bases its claim that nuclear power is Australia’s “least cost low carbon energy option” on the non-existent BWRX-300 SMR.

Claims about ‘cheap’ nuclear power certainly don’t consider real-world nuclear construction projects. Those following real-world developments have come to the opposite conclusion. Indeed supporters of nuclear power have issued any number of warnings in recent years about nuclear power’s “rapidly accelerating crisis” and a “crisis that threatens the death of nuclear energy in the West” while pondering what if anything might be salvaged from the “ashes of today’s dying industry”.

Consider the following statements, many of them from industry insiders:

  • “I don’t think we’re building any more nuclear plants in the United States. I don’t think it’s ever going to happen. They are too expensive to construct.” ‒ William Von Hoene, Senior Vice-President of Exelon, 2018.
  • Nuclear power “just isn’t economic, and it’s not economic within a foreseeable time frame.” ‒ John Rowe, recently-retired CEO of Exelon, 2012.
  • “It’s just hard to justify nuclear, really hard.” ‒ Jeffrey Immelt, General Electric’s CEO, 2012.
  • “We see renewables plus battery storage without incentives being cheaper than natural gas, and cheaper than existing coal and existing nuclear.”‒ Jim Robo, NextEra CEO, 2019.
  • France’s nuclear industry is in its “worst situation ever”, a former EDF director said in November 2016 ‒ and the situation has worsened since then.
  • Nuclear power is “ridiculously expensive” and “uncompetitive” with solar. ‒ Nobuo Tanaka, former executive director of the International Energy Agency, and former executive board member of the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum, 2018.
  • “In developed markets, we see little economic rationale for new nuclear build. Renewables are significantly cheaper and offer quicker payback on scalable investments at a time when power demand is stagnating. New nuclear construction requires massive upfront investments in complex projects with long lead times and risk of major cost overruns.” S&P Global Ratings, 2019.
  • Compounding problems facing nuclear developers “add up to something of a crisis for the UK’s nuclear new-build programme.” ‒ Tim Yeo, former Conservative parliamentarian and now a nuclear industry lobbyist, 2017.
  • “It sometimes seems like U.S. and European nuclear companies are in competition to see which can heap greater embarrassment on their industry.” ‒ Financial Times, 2017, ‘Red faces become the norm at nuclear power groups’.
  • “I don’t think a CEO of a utility could in good conscience propose a nuclear-power reactor to his or her board of directors.” ‒ Alan Schriesheim, director emeritus of Argonne National Laboratory, 2014.
  • “New-build nuclear in the West is dead” due to “enormous costs, political and popular opposition, and regulatory uncertainty” ‒ Morningstar market analysts Mark Barnett and Travis Miller, 2013.
  • “Nuclear construction on-time and on-budget? It’s essentially never happened.” ‒ Andrew J. Wittmann, financial analyst with Robert W. Baird & Co., 2017.
  • “Nuclear power and solar photovoltaics both had their first recorded prices in 1956. Since then, the cost of nuclear power has gone up by a factor of three, and the cost of PV has dropped by a factor of 2,500.” ‒ J. Doyne Farmer, Oxford University economics professor, 2016.

Several reasons can be posited for the crisis which led Bob Carr ‒ a former nuclear supporter, NSW Premier and Australian Foreign Minister ‒ to describe nuclear power as lumbering, cripplingly expensive and moribund:

  • The Fukushima disaster in Japan in 2011.
  • A suite of economic challenges: catastrophic cost overruns with reactor projects; nuclear power’s negative learning curve (it has become more expensive over time); and nuclear power’s inability to compete economically with renewables.
  • Nuclear corruption scandals in many ‒ perhaps most ‒ of the countries operating nuclear power plants.

Other reasons could be added to that list, such as the failure to find solutions to manage long-lived nuclear waste, and the explosion in the world’s only deep underground nuclear waste repository in 2014.

This paper focuses on nuclear power’s economic problems ‒ catastrophic cost overruns with reactor projects, and nuclear power’s large and worsening economic disadvantage relative to renewables.

Summary

Every power reactor construction project in Western Europe and the US over the past decade has been a disaster:

  • The only reactor construction project in France is 10 years behind schedule and the current cost estimate of A$30.6 billion is 5.8 times greater than the original estimate.
  • The reactor under construction in Finland is 13 years behind schedule and the current cost estimate is 3.7 times greater than the original estimate.
  • The Hinkley Point nuclear plant in the UK was meant to cost £2 billion per reactor and be complete by 2017; but construction hadn’t even begun in 2017 and costs have increased more than five-fold.
  • The V.C. Summer project in South Carolina was abandoned after the expenditure of around US$9 billion.
  • The Vogtle project in Georgia is six years behind schedule and costs have doubled.

Western Europe and the US provide the most striking examples of nuclear power’s crisis and the most striking examples of a more generalised problem: alone among energy sources, nuclear power has become more expensive over time, or in other words it has a negative learning curve.

Section 5 discusses nuclear power globally and in important countries other than those in Western Europe and North America. Suffice it to note here that nuclear power is struggling almost everywhere. China is said to be the industry’s shining light but nuclear growth is modest (an average of 2.1 reactor construction starts per year over the past decade) and paltry compared to renewables (2 gigawatts (GW) of nuclear power capacity added in 2020 compared to 135 GW of renewables).

Outside of China, the writing is on the wall: 48 power reactor start-ups and 98 permanent shut-downs from 2001‒2020 as well as a looming wave of shut-downs because of the ageing of the world’s reactor fleet and, in some countries, nuclear phase-out policies. Globally, renewable power capacity grew by a record 256 GW in 2020 (four times greater than Australia’s total capacity) compared to 0.4 GW for nuclear power.

Small reactors have a history of failure. Recent and current SMR construction projects are few and far between and exhibit familiar patterns of lengthy delays and large cost overruns:

  • The SMR under construction in Argentina is seven years behind schedule; the cost exceeds A$1 billion for a plant with the capacity of two large wind turbines; and the current cost estimate is 23 times higher than preliminary estimates.
  • Russia’s floating nuclear plant ‒ said to be the only operating SMR in the world ‒ was nine years behind schedule, more than six times over budget, and the electricity it produces is estimated to cost an exorbitant A$284 / megawatt-hour (MWh).
  • The high-temperature gas-cooled SMR in China is eight years behind schedule, plans for additional reactors at the same site have been dropped, the cost is 2‒3 times higher than initial estimates, and hopes that the reactor could produce cheaper electricity than large nuclear reactors have been dashed.
  • China recently began construction of an SMR based on conventional light-water reactor technology. According to China National Nuclear Corporation, construction costs per kilowatt (kW) will be twice the cost of large reactors, and the levelised cost of electricity will be 50% higher than large reactors.
  • Russia recently began construction of an SMR based on fast reactor technology. Construction was expected to be complete in 2020, but didn’t even begin until 2021. The construction cost estimate has increased by a factor of 2.4.

Sections of the nuclear industry ‒ and some outside the industry ‒ claim that SMRs have a bright future. Those claims have no factual or logical basis. Everything that is promising about SMRs belongs in the never-never; everything in the real-world is expensive and over-budget, slow and behind schedule. Moreover, there are disturbing, multifaceted connections between SMR projects and nuclear weapons proliferation, and between SMRs and fossil fuel mining.

Nuclear power ‒ large or small ‒ has become far more expensive than renewables and the gap widens every year. Research by the CSIRO and the Australian Energy Market Operator demonstrates that nuclear power is far more expensive than renewables plus backup power in the Australian context. Research by the same organisations demonstrates that nuclear power is far more expensive than renewables plus integration costs (transmission, storage and synchronous condensers).

Support for nuclear power in Australia has no logical or rational basis. The persistence of that support can be attributed to several factors:

  • Ignorance.
  • Commercial interests (direct nuclear interests as well as indirect interests ‒ Australian economist Prof. John Quiggin notes that “in practice, support for nuclear power in Australia is support for coal).
  • Ideological ‘culture wars’. Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull describes nuclear power as the “loopy current fad … which is the current weapon of mass distraction for the backbench.”

All three reasons may partially explain the Minerals Council of Australia’s ongoing disinformation campaign regarding nuclear power, discussed in section 4.

The same reasons could explain support for nuclear power within the Morrison federal government. Nonetheless, the federal Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources expects 69% renewable supply to the National Electricity Market by 2030. There is zero or near-zero support for nuclear power among state and territory governments, including conservative governments ‒ they are focused on the renewables transition (albeit unevenly). Tasmania leads the pack thanks to its hydro resources. South Australia is another pace-setter: wind and solar supplied 62% of local power generation over the past 12 months, wholesale electricity prices were the lowest on the mainland at an average of A$48 / MWh, and grid emissions have fallen to a record low. South Australia is on track to comfortably meet its target of 100% net renewables by 2030.

Kimba nuclear dump: Premier Marshall must enforce SA legislation

FoE Australia, Media Release, 29 Nov 2021

The Morrison government’s plan to impose a national nuclear waste dump at Kimba still faces multiple hurdles despite today’s announcement from Minister Keith Pitt that the site has been formally declared and land acquired. Those hurdles include a judicial challenge to the declaration, environmental assessment, assessment by the federal nuclear regulator ARPANSA, a state parliamentary inquiry, and upcoming state and federal elections.

The Howard government had proceeded further towards imposing a dump on SA before abandoning the plan in 2004.

Dr. Jim Green, national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia, said: “The Morrison government’s disgraceful efforts to override the unanimous opposition of Barngarla Traditional Owners will be challenged in the courts. Barngarla Traditional Owners are expected to launch a judicial challenge following today’s announcement.

“Traditional Owners were excluded from the government’s sham ‘community ballot’ so they held their own ballot. When the results of the government’s ballot and the Barngarla ballot are combined, support falls to 43%, short of a majority and well short of the 65% that the government indicated was the benchmark to determine ‘broad community support’.

“Premier Steven Marshall’s support for a nuclear waste dump that is unanimously opposed by Barngarla Traditional Owners is unconscionable, crude racism and Friends of the Earth calls on the Premier to support Traditional Owners ‒ and all South Australians ‒ instead of shamefully falling into line behind his undemocratic, racist federal colleagues.

“The SA Nuclear Waste Storage Facility (Prohibition) Act was an initiative of the SA Olsen Liberal government to prevent the imposition of an intermediate-level nuclear fuel waste dump in SA. The state legislation was strengthened by the Rann government in 2002. Premier Marshall should fight Canberra’s push to dump nuclear waste on SA and to override state legislation, as did Premier Olsen and Premier Rann.

“The Act mandates a state Parliamentary inquiry in response to any attempt to impose a nuclear waste dump on SA and the Premier should initiate that inquiry immediately.

“The proposed nuclear dump will be contested at the SA and federal elections. Friends of the Earth welcomes SA Labor’s policy that Traditional Owners should have a right of veto over nuclear projects given the sad and sorry history of nuclear projects in this state. Deputy Leader Susan Close says that SA Labor is “utterly opposed” to the “appalling” process which led to the federal government targeting the Kimba site.

“The government’s claim that most of the waste arises from nuclear medicine is a blatant lie. The claim that 45 permanent jobs will be created is implausible. When the Howard government planned a dump in SA, it said there would be zero jobs.

“Measured by radioactivity, well over 90% of the waste is long-lived intermediate-level reactor waste that the federal government wants to store above ground at Kimba until such time as a deep underground disposal facility is established. No effort is being made to find a location for such a facility so this long-lived waste would remain stored above ground in SA ad infinitum. The only deep underground nuclear waste repository in the world, in the US state of New Mexico, was closed in 2014 following an underground chemical explosion in a nuclear waste barrel.

“Intermediate-level waste should be stored at ANSTO’s Lucas Heights site until a suitable disposal facility is available. The Morrison government’s plan to move intermediate-level waste from secure above-ground storage at Lucas Heights to far less secure storage at Kimba is absurd and indefensible.

“South Australians fought long and hard to prevent the Howard government turning SA into the nation’s nuclear waste dump. We fought and won the campaign to stop the Flinders Ranges being used for a national dump. We fought and won the campaign to stop SA being turned into the world’s high-level nuclear waste dump. And now, we will fight until the Morrison government backs off.

Background information: www.nuclear.foe.org.au/waste


Nuclear Waste: Kicking the radioactive can down the road.

Temporary storage is substandard and a waste of money.

Medical Association for Prevention of War, Media Release, 29 November 2021

Today Resources Minister Keith Pitt confirmed Kimba will be home to a nuclear waste facility.

“This announcement is accompanied by the usual misinformation and unrealistic promises that have featured in this whole sorry saga.” said Dr Margaret Beavis from the Medical Association for Prevention of War.

“Minister Pitt focuses on low level radioactive waste, not mentioning the intermediate level waste from the reactor and other sources that is radioactive for over 10,000 years. Temporary storage is not world’s best practice. It is just kicking the can down the road.”

The role of nuclear medicine production in existing waste has been grossly overstated (https://www.arpansa.gov.au/about-us/what-we-do/international-collaboration/joint-convention/previous-reports)

There will always be multiple radioactive waste sites – hospitals store waste after patients are treated, as after several weeks it has lost so much radiation it can go to a normal rubbish tip.

The “community consent” process was deeply flawed. “This process has featured repeated misinformation, a non-representative ballot based on town boundaries, and a complete disregard of native title holders’ unanimous opposition.” said Dr Beavis.

“The job promises are totally unrealistic when compared with overseas facilities.”

Earlier this year at Senate hearings ANSTO acknowledged it had capacity to store intermediate waste for up to fifty years. Lucas Heights has the expertise, experience and security. World’s best practice is deep geological disposal, not putting radioactive waste in a shed on farm land.

“Moving intermediate level waste to South Australia is risky, a waste of public money and may well leave South Australians with a highly radioactive stranded asset.” said Dr Beavis.


Pitt’s radioactive waste dump plan lacks a rationale and social licence

Australian Conservation Foundation, Media Release, 29 November 2021

Resources Minister Keith Pitt’s formal declaration of Napandee, near Kimba in regional South Australia, as the location for a co-located radioactive waste disposal and storage facility is likely to see an escalation in community contest and opposition, the Australian Conservation Foundation said today.

ACF’s concerns with the plan include:

  • No consent from the region’s Traditional Owners, the Barngarla people. Barngarla were actively excluded from key ‘consultation’ processes, including a highly restricted community ballot.
  • The planned facility is unnecessary given federal parliament’s recent support for a $60 million waste storage upgrade to secure the most problematic intermediate level waste (ILW) at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation’s (ANSTO) Lucas Heights nuclear site for the next three to five decades.
  • Moving intermediate level waste from ANSTO, a site with many institutional assets – security, radiation monitoring and emergency response, local expertise etc – to a site near Kimba with far fewer assets and resources is irresponsible and inconsistent with best industry practice.

Further concerns are outlined in ACF’s 3-page background brief on radioactive waste plans.

“The Kimba plan is effectively redundant on the day Minister Pitt has made his decision,” said ACF’s national nuclear-free campaigner Dave Sweeney.

“Extended storage of Australia’s most problematic waste at Lucas Heights where most of it is already stored, makes far more economic, environmental and radiological sense than the ill-considered Kimba plan.

“Sites that currently store and manage nuclear medicine waste around Australia will still need to do so, irrespective of the status of any national facility, so the Minister’s repeated reference to nuclear waste being spread across 100 sites is disingenuous and inaccurate.

“The planned federal action is contrary to SA state law and does not enjoy bi-partisan political support.

“Fewer than one thousand South Australians have had a say in a plan that has profound inter-generational implications.

“This is particularly concerning given the prospect of project creep as atomic enthusiasts spruik domestic nuclear energy in the context of the proposed acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines.

“Minister Pitt is continuing the same top-down, flawed approach that has failed in the past.

“Minister Pitt’s decision is the start of a new stage in the campaign for responsible waste management.

“This politicised move will be contested in the Courts and on the streets.

“Setting up processes to manufacture consent – including denying a voice to Aboriginal Traditional Owners – speaks volumes about the poverty of the arguments in favour of the waste facility.

“If the Minister was convinced of the project’s merits he would not be cutting corners with Traditional Owners and the wider community or making myth about nuclear medicine.

“Canberra should stop playing politics and instead get serious about responsible radioactive waste management.

“This issue has a long way to run. The plan needs formal environmental and regulatory assessment and approval and is a long way from a done deal.”

ACF’s 3-page background brief on federal radioactive waste plans

Measure twice, cut once: Advancing responsible radioactive waste management in Australia


SA Parliament must have its say on Kimba nuke dump

Conservation SA, Media Release, 29 November 2021

The state’s peak environment body has called on all sides of SA politics to commit to a wide-ranging Parliament Inquiry in response to today’s announcement to impose a nuclear waste dump near Kimba in SA.
Under long-standing SA law, any attempt to impose nuclear waste on SA is illegal and triggers an investigation by the Environment, Resources and Development Committee of SA Parliament.
“While expected, it’s still deeply disappointing the Qld National Minister Keith Pitt continues to push ahead with the controversial dumping of Australia’s most dangerous radioactive waste in farming country in SA’s Eyre Peninsula against the wishes of the Barngarla – the area’s Traditional Owners,” said Conservation SA Chief Executive Craig Wilkins.
“This proposal is illegal under South Australian law.
“The federal government can only proceed by explicitly over-riding SA legislation that originally passed the SA Parliament during the Liberal Olsen era. It’s essential that all sides of SA Parliament stand up on behalf of our state by committing to a comprehensive inquiry to ensure South Australians have a say,” he said.
Under the Nuclear Waste Storage Facility (Prohibition) Act 2000 (SA), section 14 requires that when the construction of nuclear waste storage facility commences in South Australia – other than that authorised under the Radiation Protection and Control Act 1982 (SA) – the South Australian Parliament must conduct a public Parliamentary inquiry.
“This issue has a long way to run. The area’s Traditional Owners are likely to launch legal action in response to the announcement.
“And even assuming that is lost, and all other appropriate regulatory obstacles are overcome, the facility is at least a decade away and faces many opponents and hurdles.
“Most frustrating of all is that this facility will be completely redundant even before it’s built.
“International best practice is to permanently bury intermediate level waste deep underground in a secure location.
That is NOT what is proposed for Kimba.
“Instead, the waste will be temporarily parked here in SA in above ground sheds for a hundred years or more while the federal government identifies a suitable site for a deep geological repository. This planned double handling of radioactive waste – which needs to be kept isolated from humans for 10,000 years – lacks any economic, environmental or public health rationale. It also increases the risk of the waste becoming stranded in sub-optimal
conditions at Kimba.
“There is a much better alternative: $60 million was allocated in the last federal budget to extend waste storage at Lucas Heights in Sydney – the most secure and appropriate site in Australia.
“So there is now a safer, cheaper and smarter alternative to the Kimba plan.
“A wide-ranging SA Parliamentary Inquiry is essential for all the facts to come out, rather than the spin we have heard so far,” Mr Wilkins said.


Kimba nuclear waste site go-ahead but opponents still fighting

Excerpt from InDaily article, 29 Nov 2021

The decision is likely to face a legal challenge from the Barngarla Determination Aboriginal Corporation, which holds native title in the site’s surrounding areas.

The group resolved at their last general meeting to pursue a judicial review of the matter in the Federal Court should the federal government push ahead with the waste facility.

A BDAC spokesperson confirmed they would be contacting their lawyers later today to “see what the timeframe is for bringing a judicial review”.

“There have been significant and repeated grave problems with the Government’s conduct regarding the site selection process and we remain confident that, once assessed by the Court, the declaration to locate the facility at Napandee on our Country will likely be overturned,” the spokesperson said.

Pitt, asked about the potential of the BDAC bringing a legal challenge to the project, said: “that’s a matter for them.” …

Conservation Council CEO Craig Wilkins said the issue “still has a long way to run”, and called on state parliament to establish an inquiry into the facility.

Wilkins said the inquiry was a requirement under the Nuclear Waste Storage Facility (Prohibition) Act 2000.

“While expected, it’s still deeply disappointing the Queensland National Minister Keith Pitt continues to push ahead with the controversial dumping of Australia’s most dangerous radioactive waste in farming country in SA’s Eyre Peninsula against the wishes of the Barngarla – the area’s Traditional Owners,” Wilkins said.

“The federal government can only proceed by explicitly over-riding SA legislation that originally passed the SA Parliament during the Liberal Olsen era. It’s essential that all sides of SA Parliament stand up on behalf of our state by committing to a comprehensive inquiry to ensure South Australians have a say.”

Wilkins said even if the BDAC judicial review is dismissed, the facility is “at least a decade away and faces many opponents and hurdles”.

“There is a much better alternative: $60 million was allocated in the last federal budget to extend waste storage at Lucas Heights in Sydney – the most secure and appropriate site in Australia,” he said.

Correcting Alan Finkel on nuclear power

Dear Dr. Finkel,

I’m writing to respectfully correct a few inaccuracies in your ABC Sydney interview today (28 October 2021).

A “handful of radiation deaths” from Fukushima?

The WHO concluded that for people in the most contaminated areas in Fukushima Prefecture, the estimated increased risk for all solid cancers will be around 4% in females exposed as infants; a 6% increased risk of breast cancer for females exposed as infants; a 7% increased risk of leukaemia for males exposed as infants; and for thyroid cancer among females exposed as infants, an increased risk of up to 70% (from a 0.75% lifetime risk up to 1.25%).

The WHO doesn’t estimate the long-term radiation death toll but based on estimates of the collective radiation exposure, the death toll is estimated at around 5,000 by radiation biologist Dr. Ian Fairlie (among others).

Nuclear power the second safest energy source after wind, and more dangerous than solar?

Such studies typically trivialise the death toll from major accidents. As noted above, a ball-park estimate of the Fukushima death-toll is around 5,000, plus around 2,000 indirect deaths. For Chernobyl, estimates of the cancer death toll range from 9,000 (in the most contaminated parts of the former Soviet Union) to 93,000 deaths (across Europe), plus an unknown indirect death toll among the 350,000 evacuees.

That said, nuclear is clearly safer than fossil fuels … if the unique security and proliferation hazards associated with nuclear are ignored, which they clearly shouldn’t be.

Passive safety of new reactors and safety as the number one design principle?

Those are industry claims that do not stand up to scrutiny.

Nuscale’s proposed SMR design received NRC approval (from a Commission stacked with Trump appointees) but the company has since revised its design. Academic-scientist MV Ramana wrote a critique of NuScale in 2020 and Simon Holmes a Court has been Nuscale myth-busting (noting that the project is many years behind schedule, construction has not yet begun, funding is still up in the air and cost estimates have increased by US$2.5 billion).

No SMRs exist. Using a looser definition, one SMR is said to exist, a Russian plant that was nine-years behind schedule, six times over-budget and produces power at an exorbitant A$270 / MWh. There have been numerous SMR casualties such as Generation mPower and Transatomic Power.

Finland a “standout” for its deep waste repository where they are “starting to store” HLW?

Construction is ongoing and completion is anticipated in the mid-2020s. The 2006 Switkowski report anticipated completion in 2010. No waste has been disposed of.

The only operating deep underground repository is WIPP in the United States, closed for three years after a chemical explosion in an underground waste barrel in 2014 followed by failure of the filtration system, worker exposure and off-site releases ‒ the culmination of staggering mismanagement and regulatory failures.

A few additional points:

No progress has been made with pebble-bed reactors.

Thorium is fundamentally the same as uranium, hence the dearth of interest.

After 70 years, there are just a handful of fast neutron reactors ‒ all of them described by the World Nuclear Association as experimental or demonstration reactors. You will be familiar with the disastrous French experience with fast reactors; and more recently France wasted another A$1 billion or so on another fast reactor project (Astrid) but gave up before construction began. Japan wasted about A$50 billion on a fast reactor that rarely operated and a reprocessing plant that has not yet been completed. Serious opportunity costs!

Dr Edwin Lyman has followed Generation IV fantasies for decades and concludes in his latest detailed report: “Based on the available evidence, we found that the NLWR [non light water reactor] designs we analyzed are not likely to be significantly safer than today’s nuclear plants. In fact, certain alternative reactor designs pose even more safety, proliferation, and environmental risks than the current fleet.”

The viability of renewables coupled with multiple storage technologies, demand management etc. is of course a work in progress. This isn’t my area of expertise but a few points nonetheless:

* Here in South Australia, we are up to 60% renewable power supply and our Liberal state government is enthusiastically pursuing a 100% net renewables target by 2030 ‒ and the state government says on the basis of expert advice the nuclear is not viable and will not be viable for the foreseeable future.

* The ongoing AEMO/CSIRO work is worth following. Their latest GenCost report estimates SMR power costs at A$258-338 / MWh, far in excess of renewables coupled with 2‒6 hours of storage at $84‒151 / MWh.

* Peter Farley, a fellow of the Australian Institution of Engineers, crunched the numbers and concluded that Australia can get equivalent renewable power plus storage for one-third of the cost of nuclear power, in one-third of the time.

Yours sincerely, Jim Green

National nuclear campaigner

Friends of the Earth Australia