November 29, 2022

Will the Russian invasion of Ukraine trigger a lasting environmental crisis?

Military operations in Ukraine with fifteen active nuclear reactors can seriously jeopardize the environment and public health of Ukraine and Europe for generations.
Keywords: Environment, Conflict, Ukraine, Military, Nuclear, War, Russia, Pollution, Chernobyl, Power Plant, Health
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The Russian invasion of Ukraine has focused attention on the highly lethal and toxic impact of armed conflict and the environmental and humanitarian toll of the war.

In an open letter published on 3rd March, the Environmental Peacebuilding Association expressed concerns over the risks of military operations on the population and environment for decades to come. The open letter signed by 902 individuals and 156 organizations from more than 75 countries warned against the catastrophic linkages between conflict and the environment, as well as the importance of a healthy environment for post-conflict peace and stability.

Russian attacks on civilian and military sites in Ukraine are leading to both immediate and long-term air, ground, and water pollution in the heavily industrialized country, and threatening the food security of not just the people in Ukraine, but also of other countries that rely on its wheat and corn exports.

Russian attacks on power plants are a matter of major concern. The Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster, is still in the process of being decommissioned. Likewise, the Russian occupation of the Zaporizhzhya Europe’s largest nuclear power plant which has six reactors and produces around one-quarter of Ukraine’s electricity has been dubbed as dangerous and has given rise to fears of a major nuclear catastrophe.

Ukraine has a complex nuclear power infrastructure with 15 operational nuclear reactors of which 9 were in operation on 28 Feb 2022 when Russia took control of Chernobyl, 35 years after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. The White House described this as “incredibly alarming,” as it allegedly stirred up radioactive dust and may have increased the detectable levels of radiation at the site. It is fairly obvious that military operations in a country with fifteen active nuclear reactors can seriously jeopardize the environment and public health of Ukraine and Europe for generations.

According to environmentalists the takeover and occupation of Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhya could lead to increased intentional or unintentional radiation risks for the people of Ukraine and Europe and spread radioactive waste into new areas. The International Atomic Energy Agency reported missile strikes near two separate radioactive waste disposal facilities. 

An operational nuclear power plant requires electricity to power pumps and water supply to cool its nuclear fuel at all times, both in the reactor and in the adjacent spent nuclear fuel pool. Even when the reactor is shut down, there is an enormous amount of residual heat in the fuel core which requires continuous cooling. Without cooling, the water in the reactor core (and spent fuel pool) begins to heat. In the case of an operational reactor, the heating is rapid. The water reaches boiling point and begins to evaporate, and the hot nuclear reactor fuel assemblies are at risk of being exposed to air which then would lead to a thermal reaction of the nuclear fuel assembly cladding and reactor core fuel melt. If it affects nuclear fuel in the spent fuel pool, the highly exothermic chemical reaction is called a runaway zirconium oxidation reaction or autocatalytic ignition, with the resultant release of a very large volume of radioactivity.

The occupation of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant has been described by the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s Office (PGO) and Security Service of Ukraine as both a terrorist act and the ‘commission of an ecocide’ requiring criminal investigation, although one must take such alarmistic statements from a belligerent with caution. The term has also been used to describe the shelling of the National Scientific Centre of Physics and Technical Institute in Kharkiv, where nuclear elements are stored as part of a research nuclear plant.

“According to the Geneva Conventions, installations and structures containing dangerous forces, namely: dams and nuclear power plants, should not become objects of attack. However, ‘the aggressor… does not disdain shelling residential areas, schools, gardens, hospitals, and (staging) almost daily attacks on high-risk facilities,” Interfax – the largest news agency in Ukraine reported.

According to the Ukrainian report, due to the movement of enemy heavy equipment, the top layer of soil in the territories exposed to radioactive contamination after the Chernobyl disaster was disturbed. “Radioactive dust has risen into the air. According to the Automated Radiation Control System, the indicators in the exclusion zone have increased from 4.6 to 15.7 times compared to the annual average”.

In addition, the PGO said that as a result of the shelling of the territory of the radioactive waste disposal site of the Kyiv branch of the Radon Association in Kyiv, the Automated Radiation Monitoring System was disabled.

Also, the report alleges, the aggressor committed a deliberate attack and shelling of an oil depot in the village of Kriachky of the Vasylkiv community of Kyiv region, a fire on it led to massive pollution of the atmosphere with harmful substances and contamination of the earth with benzopyrene with the ingress into groundwater.

Ukraine suffered from the Chernobyl disaster –which affected nearly one-tenth of Ukraine 35 years ago in 1986 but its scars are visible till date. Even today, Ukraine releases polluted water, heavy metals, organic compounds, and oil-related pollutants into the Black Sea.

“The enemy is dropping rockets…leaving us without a roof, water, heat and light, and at the same time trying in every possible way to poison us and cause environmental disasters in addition to war. We have launched criminal proceedings for each such fact. Investigative actions to record crimes and their consequences have been organized,” the Ukrainian PGO claimed.

Russia’s military operations in the rather densely populated nation containing numerous refineries, chemical plants, and metallurgical facilities are adding to the threat for the Ukrainian people and their environment – now and for years to come. Strikes on civilian and military sites have caused fires in fuel storage areas, while a gas pipeline was ruptured during fighting in Kharkiv. 

Russian airstrikes and shelling have affected some power generating sites and civilian energy infrastructure, gas pipelines, oil terminals, fuel depots and lubricant warehouses in many towns and cities. These structures are known to contain hazardous chemicals, and combustible compounds like petroleum which, if and when liberated, can do extensive short- and long-term damage to the environment.

Likewise fighting near hydroelectric dams amounts to inviting trouble as any damage to Ukraine’s hydroelectric dams could cause disastrous flooding downstream. 

The ongoing conflict has ramifications far beyond Ukraine— known as the “breadbasket of Europe” – and a major supplier of wheat and corn to the Middle East and Africa already struggling from food shortages which could get even worse if the fighting continues uncontrollably.  

All said and done, it may take decades for Ukraine and the world as a whole to recover from the impact of the conflict.

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Neeraj Mahajan

Mr. Neeraj Mahajan is a media professional with over 30 years of experience in print, electronic, web and mobile media. He is the Editor of Taazakhabar News and World News Report.

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