*** Update –
Update***Ukraine’s nuclear power plants are operating stably with nine reactors in operation: three at Zaporizhzhia, two at South Ukraine, one at Khmelnytskyi, and three at Rivne. The other six units were in scheduled repairs or in reserve, according to Energoatom. Energoatom is the National Nuclear Energy Company of the Ukraine – a state enterprise that operates its 4 nuclear power plants.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could put Europe’s second-largest nuclear fleet (15 reactors at Zaporizhia, Rivne, Khmelnytsky and South-Ukraine nuclear plants) at risk. The so-called contamination concerns, raised by social media, from the crippled Chernobyl plant appear to be unfounded, although the plant area is now under Russian control. Sometime after the invasion, Ukrainian officials informed the IAEA that there had been no casualties nor destruction at the Chernobyl plant
International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said, “The IAEA is closely monitoring developments in Ukraine with a special focus on the safety and security of its nuclear power plants.” Grossi’s concerns were expressed after Russian soldiers seized the Chernobyl plant after what officials called a fierce battle with Ukrainian forces in the protected area surrounding the site near the city of Pripyat. As you most likely know, Chernobyl is enclosed by a massive, $1.9 billion steel structure to contain the highly radioactive fuel and debris.
“It is of vital importance that the safe and secure operations of the nuclear facilities in that zone should not be affected or disrupted in any way,” Grossi said in the statement. “The IAEA is closely monitoring developments in Ukraine with a special focus on the safety and security of its nuclear power plants.”
James Acton, director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, also warned in a blog post that “even if Moscow doesn’t authorize direct attacks against nuclear plants, such attacks might occur anyway. A weapon aimed at a nearby target could hit a nuclear power plant if its navigation system failed.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said yesterday, “We are outraged by credible reports that Russian soldiers are currently holding the staff of the Chernobyl facilities hostage. This unlawful and dangerous hostage-taking, which could upend the routine civil service efforts required to maintain and protect the nuclear waste facilities, is obviously incredibly alarming.”
“From a biological, nuclear safety point of view, this is a fairly benign site at this point,” said Lake Barrett, who served as acting deputy director of the Department of Energy’s Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management from 1993 to 2002. “Yes, it’s highly contaminated, and yes, it should be contained,” he continued, “but there’s no active energy there that can cause an explosion or cause a plume of any biological significance.”
The greatest risk would be from artillery explosions impacting the contaminated soil around the site. This soil is primarily contaminated with radioactive cesium, which could then become airborne as a dust, and based on normal wind conditions, would most likely impact Belarus before traveling into Russia.
However, Kate Brown, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who has written about the Chernobyl accident, fears fighting at the reactor site could start fires that could result in smoke-borne radioactivity. “It’s called an exclusion zone for a reason. The steel containment structure, the length of nearly three football fields, was needed to control leaking radioactivity”, Brown said.