September 5, 2022

Diane Francis

The slow-motion nuclear disaster underway now is part of Vladimir Putin’s war against Europe. The Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in Ukraine is dangerously close to a meltdown — despite two inspectors there — that would unleash a plume of radioactive contamination reaching across Eastern Europe and into the Baltic nations. It’s in the middle of a war zone. Shelling risks are limited because the reactors are shielded by ten meters of concrete. A direct hit on its nuclear waste storage site would cause dangerous leaks, but the greatest danger emerged on August 25 when the Russians disconnected the plant, presumably to link it to their Russian grid, and shut down a “cooling power” line from a nearby coal plant. That’s when the United Nations intervened immediately, because without power to cool reactors, a full-blown nuclear meltdown is inevitable. The line was reconnected, but can easily be severed again. This situation is the biggest terrorist threat in history.

“We are worried. We do not want another Chernobyl,” said Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Global concerns were raised because interruption to a nuclear reactor’s “cooling line” is disastrous. Panic after August 25 led to action by the United Nations which convinced Russia to link the line to the local power source and to allow an on-site inspection of the energy complex by experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency. Two will remain behind permanently, but this gives experts small comfort. As one said “we’re hanging by a thread of local [power] supply and if that fails, cooling stops, rods heat up, and we go into a complete catastrophe.”

Putin is playing with fire and knows it. He dishes out blame toward Ukraine for damaging the plant, and to camouflage the fact he intends to steal the reactors and link them to Russia’s grid in the name of “safety”. Such a monumental theft also deprives Ukraine of 20 per cent of its power supply before winter, and beyond. But most importantly to him is that the plant is the weapon — along with cutting gas to Germany this week —to try and bring Europe to its knees. Russia publicly warned that if a meltdown or explosion occurs at the plant “damaged by Ukraine” radioactive waste will hit Germany, Poland, and Slovakia. This is a threatened nuclear attack against Europe without a traditional bomb.

This is a “dirty bomb” in his arsenal, but commentators forget that there is a second one. The first target after his February 24 invasion was to take over the no-go zone north of Kyiv where the notorious Chernobyl nuclear meltdown occurred in April 1986. This was the site of the worst nuclear accident in history — caused solely by Russian engineering and managerial incompetence. The disaster began when one of its four reactors went out of control during a test at low power. This led to an explosion and fire that demolished the reactor building and ruptured the reactor core, spewing contaminants for days across Europe and parts of the USSR. The core partially melted down and created a fireball that blew off the 1,200-tonne concrete and steel lid.

During a few days, more than 400 times the amount of radioactive material went into the atmosphere than was released by the Hiroshima bomb. Some 4,000 people died, an unknown number suffered from radiation disease, and 117,000 were permanently evacuated from two small towns. An area the size of Rhode Island (1,000 square miles) was deemed an “exclusion zone” that scientists say is not habitable for up to 20,000 years. It was captured by Russians last February and whatever was left was ransacked by its troops.

Chernobyl traumatized the world. Many Ukrainians in Kyiv still remember being told one day that they had to pack clothes for their children to go to the country for a few days, without explanation. They never saw them, nor could they reach them, for two years because Moscow officials did not want to spread panic. Now Russia lies once more. Damages to the nuclear plant have been caused by Russian shelling — not Ukrainian shelling — as it took control. Occupied since early March, the plant has been operated safely, thanks to several dozen Ukrainian technicians who work at gunpoint. There have been killings and disappearances as well as damage to their lab and chemistry facilities. And the complex has become a Russian military base, safe from attacks and able to launch artillery fire at will against the Ukrainians.

Word of the disconnect on August 25 led to dismay at the United Nations and in capitals around the world for good reason. The UN inspectors on August 29 gave it a clean bill of health and its inspectors will continue to monitor operations. But quickly after, Putin intensified his energy terrorism by shutting down natural gas flows to Germany indefinitely and tightening supplies through other pipelines to the rest of the continent. Europe’s current predicament is the geopolitical version of hostage-taking by a mass murderer — a situation that Putin intends to use as a bargaining chip in future negotiations.

So how bad can this get? There are 440 nuclear reactors around the world supplying 10 per cent of the world’s electricity, but there have been only three nuclear accidents in history: Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011. The first, and least damaging but most publicized, was Three Mile Island, even leading to an anti-nuclear film called “China Syndrome”. The actual mishap occurred due to equipment failure and operator error which led to the partial meltdown of one reactor. Nearby residents were exposed to radiation levels equivalent to a chest x-ray, but the fuss was enormous. The Three Mile Island complex was decommissioned in 2019 after 45 years’ operation.

The most recent nuclear disaster was due to an earthquake and tsunami in Japan that took place in 2011. A 15-metre tsunami swamped the region and the three Fukushima Daiichi reactors located onshore. The flooding disabled the power and cooling system, and all three reactors melted in just three days. Damage from the weather and meltdown destroyed nearby towns, and led to evacuations because high concentrations of radioactive and other dangerous substances were discovered as far as 28 kilometers from the plant. A total of 2,200 people were evacuated in a 20-kilometer or 18-mile radius around the plant, and only one person died of cancer caused by radiation exposure. But like Chernobyl, this is also a no-go region, roughly the size of San Francisco, and uninhabitable for 100 years.

Naturally, Japan has been notably upset about the Ukrainian situation, but China also condemned Russia’s seizure of Zaporizhzhia in March — breaking with Moscow — and said it was “gravely concerned” about the safety of all of Ukraine’s nuclear plants after Russia attacked and seized the plant in March. Its foreign minister urged “calm and restraint” on the part of Russian forces. The United States and 41 other countries have asked Moscow to cede the facility back to Ukraine, but all have been ignored.

Putin’s terrorism toward Europeans won’t end and neither should the resolve by allies to demolish his army and economy.