Keep Worries About Ukrainian Nuclear Reactors Realistic – Breaking Defense Breaking Defense
the name ‘Chernobyl’ is synonymous with nuclear disaster, so when Russian troops cut the power to the Ukrainian reactor set to take over last week has raised red flags around the world. Worry only grew twicer nuclear reactors werseized by Russian forces. But in a new analysis, Jack Kelly, a nuclear expert with the German Marshall Fund, explains why he believes these concerns are exaggerated.
As Russia’s three-week war in Ukraine approaches, one question remains a major concern, posed and answered in think tank analyzes and pundits’ tea leaf readings: “Russian leader Vladimir Putin will use there nuclear weapons? »
My colleagues inside the Beltway and the Brussels bubble have debated this issue at length, and I understand its appeal and the real concern behind it. Being afraid is normal during a large-scale war, even more so when nuclear weapons enter the scene.
At the same time, it’s important that this worry is tempered by reality, and the good news among the nuclear details is that the situation isn’t as scary as it looks.
Early in the war, Russia captured the Chernobyl nuclear power plant; at the end of last week, Russia captured the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. The Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology, housing a small nuclear research reactor used for experimentation, has also come under heavy shelling from Russian forces in recent days, and the International Atomic Energy Agency ( IAEA) now reports that the neutron generator there has been destroyed. In the abstract, this sounds scary, but while all three facilities sustained significant damage, none saw a release of nuclear material.
RELATED: For more on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, click here.
After the bombardment of Kharkiv and the capture of Zaporizhzhia, the Russian Foreign Ministry accused Ukraine of staging an attack, in connection with an accusation that Ukraine seeks to set off its nuclear reactors to hit Russia; Moscow even accused Ukraine of creating a dirty bomb, a baseless claim. This news has raised concerns about Russia’s deliberate use of radiological dispersal devices – otherwise known as “dirty bombs” – in false flag incidents to justify its invasion of Ukraine, or simply as a weapon with plausible deniability against the Ukrainian population.
In times of war, fear is as much a weapon as a rocket, and when it comes to nuclear weapons and radiological incidents, any mention of exposure is enough to cause panic in populations – like races to iodine tablets in Belgium, Italy and Denmark. seen in recent days. However, we must understand the reality of a situation and react accordingly. The reality here is far less frightening than a full-fledged nuclear war.
Dirty bombs, known as radiological dispersal devices (RDDs), are not nuclear weapons. These devices do not explode due to a nuclear chain reaction, they do not cause nuclear fission or fusion, and they do not require the creation of certain elements such as uranium or plutonium. They combine conventional explosives, such as dynamite, with available radiological elements, such as nuclear waste, to detonate and disperse radiological material. If a nuclear reactor were hit during a military engagement, the reaction would be like the explosion of a dirty bomb.
RDDs are not weapons of mass destruction. If a reactor were hit by a missile, the blast from conventional explosives would likely do more damage and kill more people than the attached radioactive material. The dispersal of radioactive material would depend on the strength of the explosion, as well as wind conditions, but it is likely that an RDD explosion would only contaminate blocks, not hundreds of kilometers.
The military power of an RDD lies in its ability as an “area denial” tool. Using an RDD would result in costly cleanup and radiation studies that would prevent access to an area for an extended period of time. Although there were many events that could have ended as dirty bomb events, no RDDs ever exploded.
Let’s talk about the details of Ukrainian facilities.
The reactor at the Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology is a small, relatively new reactor that has operated only occasionally and uses small amounts of fuel. This means that waste generation and storage can be low; although the possibility of having medical isotopes, such as iodine-131 and strontium, in the facility exists, reports indicate that safety measures have been taken to put the reactor in a “subcritical” state ” (sure) at the start of the war. This facility was also built with modern safety standards.
A strike on this facility that was to detonate a certain level of radioactive material would create more of a radiological dispersal “incident”, and the magnitude of the incident depends on many variables. Even in the event of complete destruction, it would likely become a localized event and prevent entry into the Kharkiv area until remediation efforts are able to measure and clean up the extent of radioactive material releases. While area denial may play into Putin’s intentions, it is unlikely to pose a continent-wide danger.
While the name Chernobyl is synonymous with nuclear disaster, another epic meltdown there doesn’t appear on any maps. Reports indicate that the plant and cooling pools lost power due to a damaged power cable. Chernobyl’s cooling pools store around 20,000 pieces of spent fuel that need to be cooled with water. Without water cooling or cooling, water can evaporate. However, the site has diesel backup generators which can run for two days and due to the age of the fuel the water in the pools will continue to cool effectively even without electricity. During the outage, power was maintained with generators and has since been restored. Fortunately, the IAEA reports no significant increase in radioactive releases at any of these sites. Assuming the Russians who now control the site continue to monitor the facility, it should be no more dangerous than it was the morning Russia decided to invade.
As Western countries experience the first modern war in Europe, being afraid is normal. Fear is even more normal when nuclear weapons enter the scene. Understanding the current scenario and the weapons involved can help ease the panic. Nuclear weapons are expensive and complex military weapons that require many steps to create and have only been used offensively twice in history. Radiological dispersal devices are relatively simpler, but their effects are localized and they have never been used. What concerns me most about Ukraine’s nuclear picture is ensuring that nuclear reactors, which need cooling and electricity, remain safe. The IAEA has outlined seven steps that need to be taken, and we need to make sure they happen.
There will be many difficult days ahead as the war continues, but fears of nuclear war must remain realistic.
Jack Kelly is a Fulbright Schuman Scholar and Visiting Scholar at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, currently based in the office in Brussels, Belgium. Kelly studies nuclear weapons, black markets in nuclear materials, weapons smuggling and creation, as well as transatlantic cooperation and the political response to detecting and responding to illicit weapons.