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The Situation at Chernobyl Is Deteriorating

Two weeks ago, Russian forces seized control of the defunct Chernobyl, once the site of the world’s worst nuclear meltdown, and Zaporizhzhia, Europe’s biggest active nuclear power plant, raising concerns of nuclear risks in the middle of a war zone. 

Although Chernobyl’s last reactor went offline in 2000, the site now serves as a nuclear waste storage facility—and a highly contaminated one. The situation there is deteriorating; the facility lost power on Wednesday, and backup diesel generators have only enough fuel for two days. The 210 technical personnel and guards have not been allowed to rotate out to rest. The UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, which promotes the peaceful use of nuclear energy and prevents nuclear weapon proliferation, says it lost contact with Chernobyl’s radiation monitoring systems on Tuesday. Unless officials can restore power, experts fear Chernobyl could once again become the site of a nuclear calamity.

“To have a long-term loss of power is certainly a concern,” says Ed Lyman, a senior global security scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists and coauthor of the book Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster. Some of Chernobyl’s waste has been transferred into dry casks, but considerable quantities of fuel rods remain in a pool that requires cooling. That’s where the biggest risks currently are. “Without electrical power to the cooling pumps, the spent fuel pool will start heating up,” Lyman says. Water will gradually evaporate or boil away, exposing the fuel rods and releasing radioactive gasses. 

Chernobyl’s New Safe Confinement structure also needs electricity. This is the facility built around the concrete “sarcophagus” that surrounds what’s left of the damaged reactor Number Four, which melted down in the 1986 disaster. The confinement structure’s ventilation system must run to prevent the exposed nuclear fuel within it from becoming more hazardous. Without power, the site’s 1.5-billion-euro decommissioning program could be imperiled, Claire Corkhill, an expert on nuclear material degradation at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, wrote on Twitter and in an email to WIRED.

Some experts worry more about the personnel, who haven’t been able to leave after their shifts, which normally would have ended two weeks ago. “I’m concerned about the poor and heroic staff workers, and whether they’re in a good mental state to run all the equipment,” says Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress, a scientist-in-residence and nuclear physicist at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. He likened them to stressed and sleep-deprived passenger jet pilots flying in a combat zone. “You wouldn’t want to be flying in that airplane,” he says.

Not everyone agrees on the level of danger now posed by Chernobyl. Lyman estimates that if the cooling system isn’t running the way it’s supposed to, there’s a window of at least a couple of weeks before the threat of meltdown arises. Dalnoki-Veress thinks it might be months until the risk becomes high. On Wednesday, Rafael Mariano Grossi, director-general of the IAEA, tweeted that so far there is “no critical impact on safety,” although in a press statement the agency said that “the lack of power is likely to lead to a further deterioration of operational radiation safety at the site.” But on the same day, Ukrainian foreign minister Dmitro Kuleba wrote on Twitter that the limited power to cooling systems makes “radiation leaks imminent.” 

Lyman believes this range of assessments is understandable. “The Ukrainians are good-intentioned, but I feel like they’re possibly using rhetoric that’s pretty alarming,” he says, adding that it makes sense that they would want to draw attention to the possibility of a nuclear crisis. “They certainly have the right to play this card, given what the country has endured and the fact that it’s had to cope with this contaminated site for so long.” 

Plus, he says, Russian forces are violating rules that the IAEA has established for nuclear safety and security, such as that monitoring equipment needs to be fully functional, staff need to be able to safely fulfill their duties without pressure, and power supply from the grid needs to be maintained. Lyman notes that when he last visited Chernobyl’s “exclusion zone” in 2006, he had to go through a standard radiation control checkpoint on the way out, with checks for nuclear contamination on people’s bodies or clothing to prevent the spread of radioactive materials. But it’s possible that Russian soldiers are indiscriminately moving into and out of that hazardous area, he says.

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And that’s not the only way Russian troops appear to have been reckless. A training building outside the perimeter of the Zaporizhzhia plant caught fire last Friday after a Russian attack, and now operators have shut down all but two reactors there. Then the Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology’s nuclear research facility and neutron-generating accelerator—developed in collaboration with the US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory—was damaged earlier this week, according to the IAEA. (The neutron generator likely isn’t a radiation threat, however.)

“The Russians have been incredibly careless. They not only attacked a nuclear power plant; they also attacked a nuclear laboratory, an accelerator complex that’s designed to produce neutrons,” says Bob Rosner, a physicist at the University of Chicago and former chair of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Science and Security Board. 

And the threat won’t be over as long as Russia continues to bombard Ukraine with missiles and fly warplanes overhead. US Department of Energy researchers have studied whether nuclear reactors could withstand an airplane crash, Dalnoki-Veress says. They cannot. And missiles fly faster and are more penetrating. An impact on a fuel pool could be highly damaging, likely spreading dangerous radioactive material all over. That’s why prohibiting combat near nuclear facilities should be a top priority in Ukraine-Russia negotiations, Dalnoki-Veress argues: “No reactor in the world can withstand a missile strike. It’s important to not have any fighting near these facilities. It’s a no-brainer.”

Updated 3/10/2022 6:20 pm ET: This story was updated to note that two of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant's reactors are currently operating.

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