An unsafe technology
Russian shelling near the Zaporizhzhia plant is a stark reminder of the inherently dangerous nature of nuclear power, warns Eddie Ford
Reports about how Zaporizhzhia, Europe’s largest nuclear power station, had been shelled by advancing Russian forces, caused widespread alarm. According to a plant spokesperson, firefighters were initially unable to tackle a blaze in a nearby outbuilding, because they were being shot at. Petro Kotin, acting president of the state-run nuclear power corporation, Energoatom, said workers had been allowed by Russian forces to go back to their posts at the nuclear plant - but had been working “under the barrels of machine guns” and they were “physically and mentally exhausted”.
Rafael Mariano Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, called for a ceasefire and warned of severe danger if any reactors were hit by a missile or some other type of military ordinance. As a result of the Russian shelling around Zaporizhzhia, the IAEA is putting its Incident and Emergency Centre on full alert. This is a quick-reaction team that is designed to respond to nuclear incidents, whether accidental or due to deliberate acts.
More dramatically, Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, tweeted a warning that if an explosion occurred it could be “10 times larger than Chernobyl”.1 As for Volodymyr Zelensky - the president and new pin-up boy for the west - he declared that “if there is an explosion, that’s the end for everyone. The end for Europe. The evacuation of Europe.” He went on to accuse Russia of resorting to “nuclear terror” for the first time “in the history of mankind”, claiming that “no country other than Russia has ever fired on nuclear power units”.
Of course, we understand why Zelensky would want to exaggerate the threat for propaganda reasons - the idea of using “nuclear terror” paints the Russians in the blackest possible light. But what exactly are the risks at Zaporizhzhia? Thankfully, they appear to be minimal - though obviously they had the potential to be far worse. Perhaps ironically, the Zaporizhzhia plant was allegedly the target of an attempted attack back in 2014, when 40 members of the fascist Right Sector tried to gain access. but were stopped by guards.2 Maybe they had “nuclear terror” ambitions of their own!
Anyhow, Zaporizhzhia is the ninth largest nuclear facility in the world - based on Soviet-era technology, but of a more modern design than Chernobyl. Each reactor is enclosed in a pressurised and sealed, steel vessel with 20-centimetre-thick walls, which in turn is housed inside a massive, reinforced-concrete containment structure. The plant has six nuclear reactors, which generate nearly half of the country’s electricity derived from nuclear power, and more than a fifth of the total generated in Ukraine.
Importantly, the plants also have multiple safety back-up systems and built-in fire protection systems. In addition to the normal reactor cooling, they have both high-pressure and low-pressure injection systems. In the opinion of Koji Okamoto, a nuclear safety researcher at the University of Tokyo, “the containment structure may have a resistance to normal weapons” (my emphasis). Hopefully we will never find whether he is right or wrong. Obviously, it would be a completely different matter if Russian forces were deliberately trying to breach the containment structure - but why on earth would they want to do that? It would be to invite death and destruction upon themselves.
Even at the Chernobyl disaster site the risk of accidental radioactive releases appears to be limited. The dangerous material is in the basement of the reactor building, protected by the remains of that building and many tons of concrete that have been poured over it. Meaning that the ruins of the reactor that exploded in 1986 are enclosed in a massive 63-metre steel and concrete shell called the sarcophagus. In the view of many nuclear scientists, a direct artillery hit could breach the shell and allow a small amount of radioactive contaminants to escape - but the solid mass of melted fuel elements it contains - that is the uranium - is inaccessible.
However, having said all that, it would be a mistake to think that everything is safe - there are still risks. One worst-case scenario involves damage to the cooling capability at Zaporizhzhia or one of Ukraine’s other facilities - especially given that the reactors are now reliant on external power for cooling. Even after reactors are switched off, they need continual cooling for several weeks in order to remove residual heat from the core. The cooling systems rely on diesel generators, so any damage to these (or if fuel was siphoned off for other purposes) could cause an incident similar to that at Fukushima, where the plant’s power failed after a tsunami. That could result in the reactors overheating and residual water turning into steam, which could melt the fuel inside the reactor and cause the release of radiation into the atmosphere.
Then there is the ever-present problem, and danger, of what to do with the spent-fuel pools. After fuel is taken out of a reactor core, it is put into the pools for a year or more to cool it down before being transferred to long-term, more secure storage. Damage to one of these, whether accidental or intentional, could cause the water to leak out or boil off. The rods would then overheat and start a fire hazardous to people in the vicinity of the plant, and even to those further afield - bearing in mind that the prevailing winds are towards Russia. One mitigating factor is that fuel rods that have been in the pool for several weeks or months are less dangerous than they were at the beginning, as the main cancer-causing isotope they contain decays quickly. So far, no issues had been reported with Zaporizhzhia’s spent fuel pools.
When Russian soldiers took the Chernobyl plant in late February, that generated an equal avalanche of excited headlines about radiation levels shooting up and potential nuclear Armageddon. Sadly, under conditions of war you do not get a calm, balanced, reliable investigation by the media. Instead there is hysterics.
What happened in Chernobyl was not the result of fierce fighting or irresponsible shelling as part of a crazy military determined to seize a dead nuclear facility. Actually, it was nothing more sinister than tanks and other military vehicles moving about and kicking up earth into the air - hence the rise in radiation levels, which was detected by scientists in Poland, Hungary, Sweden, etc.
This incident tells you two things. Firstly, that the sensitivity of the instruments used by scientists is very impressive. Secondly, and more seriously, what an appalling mess Chernobyl is and was. It is so polluted that merely driving tanks and lorries through the area can be detected many miles away. The recent and very good HBO/Sky mini-series Chernobyl reminded us of the extraordinary lying that went on and the extreme danger that the plant posed to the health of those dealing with it in the immediate aftermath of the disaster - many of whom died prematurely. But the wider population was also exposed to very dangerous levels of radiation. Of course, post-Zaporizhzhia people are now asking - quite understandably - why the hell have these plants if they are so dangerous? And why the hell are we building them right now in Britain and other countries? Madness posing as rationality.
Sure, inevitably the technology has improved. But recent events in Ukraine show the inherently dangerous nature of nuclear power. Since 9/11 such facilities have been strengthened, naturally enough - so they do not go into meltdown if struck by an aircraft like a Boeing 747. But it does not provide similar protection, it seems, against a direct missile strike or perhaps sabotage by people who know what they are doing.
In this context, it is worth mentioning Iran’s nuclear facilities which are buried underground, or heavily protected by layers of concrete. There are, of course, bunker-busting weapons, such as the so-called ‘Mother Of All Bombs’, GBU-43s and GBU-57s, last used by the US in April 2017 against Isis-K militants hiding in deep caves in Afghanistan. As it happens, the Americans did not have to use MOAB. But they did so for demonstrative purposes, showing off their technological prowess, and also presumably to terrify Iran. Note, the US has supplied Israel with MOABs, supposedly to be used against Hamas. However, the most likely target Israel has in mind is Iran … and a strike on its facilities, already subjected to bombing and sabotage, would have horrendous consequences.
Either way, nuclear power is inherently dangerous - not just because of the inevitability of human error, as in Chernobyl, but by its very nature.
Despite that, there are those who are tempted by nuclear technology as a short-term fix to global warming, whether on the accelerationist left or Green realos. The latter would have us believe that nuclear power is “a highly effective method of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as well as providing secure, reliable and scalable electricity supplies” - therefore “to maximise nuclear energy’s contribution electricity markets need to acknowledge these benefits”.3
We have to disagree. Not only are these plants inherently dangerous and incredibly expensive, compared to other technologies, but - not at least in the case of Britain - they also take an enormous amount of time to build - normally up to 20 years. If you take the latest projections for global warming, we simply do not have 20 years to wait.
There are other, far better solutions to global warming - not the dichotomous choice between climate warming or nuclear power, as some absurdly argue - such as ramping down on coal and oil use as quickly as possible and going for thermal, wind, tidal, solar and other renewable power sources. Or cutting back on demand through measures such as insulation, home working and radically reducing the consumption of meat and dairy products. Above all, though, we must break with the car economy and massively invest in traditional and innovative forms of public transport.