Nuclear Power Plants Aren't Made to Survive WarRoundup
tags: nuclear weapons, environmental history, war, nuclear power
Kate Brown is a professor of science, technology and society at MIT. She is the author of Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future.
Susan Solomon is the Martin Professor of Environmental Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her research centers on the irreversibility of climate change and the Antarctic ozone hole.
The day Russia invaded Ukraine, Russian forces took control of the decommissioned Chernobyl nuclear power plant. A week later, flares from Russian artillery lit up the Zaporizhzhia plant; Ukrainian media reported that the Russian army had placed land mines around the plant’s perimeter and was stockpiling arms at both nuclear installations. The army is now pointed at yet another nuclear facility, the South Ukraine plant.
The world is watching the first war in a nuclearized country — and combat has already reached active reactors. It is difficult to believe, but in all the decades of imagining nuclear-emergency scenarios, engineers did not design for an event so human and inevitable as war.
Military strategists routinely target electrical grids and power plants to incapacitate the enemy. But Russia’s is the first invasion of a country that derives more than half its energy from nuclear power. It stands to reason that Russian generals will seek to capture all 15 active reactors in Ukraine. The Russian army appears to be using the nuclear installations as safe havens, calculating that the Ukrainians will not fire on them, but we can still expect plenty more fearful nights spent riveted to scenes of battles over huge concrete towers and rows of basins filled with radioactive spent nuclear fuel: It turns out that reactor containment buildings have never been stress-tested for blows from heavy artillery or missiles.
Even without a direct hit on a reactor, we are learning of the fragility of nuclear power plants. Normal oversight and operations have essentially been replaced by isolation and disorder. Workers at Chernobyl have been on the job continuously for more than three weeks. They have no clean clothes (important for nuclear workers), no real beds, no contact with family, no proper meals or rest. At the Zaporizhzhia plant, according to a Ukrainian official, Russian soldiers have forced employees into submission. Employee-hostages — exhausted, hungry and stressed — could make mistakes. So could the untrained Russian military personnel who are giving the orders.
Communication to these sites is largely cut off. Independent oversight experts cannot enter to verify safe operations or deliver spare parts. Russian diplomats continue to enjoy a privileged role at the International Atomic Energy Agency, despite the war. We have to rely on what the IAEA and the Russian army tell us. In the past, Soviet nuclear information services specialized in secrecy and mistruths. One of us, while working on a history of Chernobyl, found that the IAEA had difficulty acknowledging the public health impact of the fallout from the 1986 explosion there. Russian information services again appear to be opaque and untrustworthy. If an accident occurs, we don’t have confidence that rescue squads and firefighters can get to captured nuclear installations to deal with infernos and injuries. Nor can we be sure that we will learn the full extent of the damage and spread of radioactive sources.