The Nuclear Aspect of the Conflict in Ukraine: A Ukrainian Radiation Expert’s Take

Politics People

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has included attacks on facilities at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in the southeast of the country. With the world’s attention focused on the potential for a dangerous radiation leak, we spoke with Ukrainian radiobiologist Vasyl Yoschenko for his views on the situation.

Vasyl Yoschenko

Professor at the Institute of Environmental Radioactivity, Fukushima University, where he specializes in radioecology, particularly in forest environments. Born in Ukraine. Received his MS in physics from the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv and entered the Ukrainian Institute of Agricultural Radiology in 1989. His research on the environmental impact of the Chernobyl disaster led him to earn his PhD in radiobiology from the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine in 1995. Came to Japan in 2014 to take a position as project professor at Fukushima University’s IER; attained his present position in 2020. His current research focus is the impact of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster on Japan’s forest environments.

A Dangerous Situation Unfolds

INTERVIEWER  What was your first impression upon hearing about the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant attack? Did you expect something like this to happen?

VASYL YOSCHENKO  I did expect a Russian attack on Ukraine. This much has been clear for some time. But the attack on the nuclear power facility at Zaporizhzhia in particular was unexpected for me. People in the twenty-first century understand that nuclear power plants are dangerous objects and should not be attacked in any case. So I was shocked.

Last night they shelled another nuclear facility in the Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology, in Kharkiv, the second-biggest city in Ukraine. Russian forces may also be trying to attack another nuclear plant in Yuzhnoukrainsk.

INTERVIEWER  Are these attacks on the power grid in general, to destabilize Ukraine’s electricity supply? Or are the Russians trying to create an especially dangerous situation on purpose?

YOSCHENKO  It could indeed be a very dangerous situation. I must say, though, that I don’t know the Russians’ aims. You would need to ask them, not me.

Zaporizhzhia is the biggest nuclear generation facility in Europe. It’s one of the largest in the world. They may indeed be aiming to cut off the country’s power supply. My understanding is that all but one reactor at Zaporizhzhia are stopped now, which means Ukraine needs to compensate somehow for this shortfall in the country’s power supply.

INTERVIEWER  The Geneva Conventions prohibit attacks on nuclear power stations, and the United Nations is condemning Russia for this action. This is not an accident like Fukushima, but a human-caused military action. What are your thoughts?

YOSCHENKO  It is a truly terrible development. No matter what the situation, attacks on nuclear power plants and related facilities are not acceptable. This is something that must never happen.

There have been claims that the reactors aren’t being targeted, but everything at the power plant is important. Take the example of the Fukushima Daiichi accident. There, the reactors at first were not impacted directly, but auxiliary facilities for cooling stopped functioning. And we saw the outcome of that.

These are pressurized light water units that use two water circuits for cooling the active zone of the reactors. Each reactor itself is protected by thick concrete walls, and probably can’t be damaged by missiles. However, the secondary water circuit is outside this containment. If they stop or damage this, it can cause a serious situation.

INTERVIEWER  Were the reactors in a safer condition, like cold shutdown, with the fuel removed?

YOSCHENKO  I’m not sure I have all the information on their situation. As I understand it, reactor number 1, which was actually hit by tank fire, was under routine maintenance. But from what I saw on the news, fuel was still inside the reactor.

After this attack, they stopped some other reactors; I understand that only reactor number 4 is now in operation. But I only have limited information.

INTERVIEWER  How dangerous could this attack be?

YOSCHENKO  As you mentioned, the Geneva Conventions say they should not be attacked—that they should be out of the area of any military actions. This is very important, and it’s why we have a very dangerous situation now.

The military attackers there are not nuclear scientists or staff from nuclear power plants. They do not understand what they are doing. Even if they don’t intend to do anything dangerous, it can still be done unintentionally, and a serious nuclear accident can happen, resulting in the release of radioactivity into the environment.

The Impact on Ukraine

INTERVIEWER  What is the current situation at Chernobyl? The wrecked reactor structure is under its protective sarcophagus, but is now under control of the Russian forces. What could happen there?

YOSCHENKO  Here we have only limited information, too. The Chernobyl zone is not just a power plant now—it’s also a storage site for radioactive waste. In principle, the entire area is a potential source of release of radionuclides. You mentioned the confinement for unit number 4, which was ruined in the 1986 disaster. But there are still three units outside the shelter there, as well as the spent fuel facility.

Many of the staff working at the Chernobyl site live in the city of Slavutych, working in shifts. To get to the site they travel through Belarusian territory on a special train. Now all this travel is stopped, and the workers in the shift on duty when the Russians seized this territory are still there. They have split their group into two shifts so they can have some rest. This is not enough, of course. It’s a situation that can increase the probability of some human mistakes.

I don’t know if it was reported in the Japanese media, but on the first day, when the Russians entered Ukraine, there was a significant increase in airborne concentrations of radionuclides in the Chernobyl zone. In some places they exceeded the mean annual concentrations by a factor of ten. This was without any impact on the power plant itself, but due to moving heavy vehicles like tanks through the contaminated areas. So this is also a dangerous area even if the Russians carry out no intentional actions to cause radiation hazards.

INTERVIEWER  How many nuclear power plants are there in Ukraine? What is being done to protect the others?

YOSCHENKO  There are four others besides Chernobyl, which is of course not in operation. There’s Yuzhnoukrainsk, in the south of Ukraine, which has three reactors. Then there are two other power plants in the west of the country, in Varash and Netishyn. In total, there are fifteen reactors in operation in Ukraine.

I don’t know that they are fully protected. Ukraine as a whole is not fully protected now. Our prime minister, Denys Shmyhal, contacted the International Atomic Energy Agency and European Union, asking them to send personnel to protect the areas around our nuclear power plants. I don’t know whether this is realistic, though.

INTERVIEWER  People are scared about radiation, but attacks on conventional power plants can also pose serious environmental dangers. Is Ukraine focusing mainly on the nuclear facilities, or on protecting everything?

YOSCHENKO  Well, of course we are trying to protect everything. But if you look at the map of Ukraine, you will see that the strikes were made practically everywhere. Recently the Russians attacked an oil facility about 20 kilometers south of the capital, Kyiv, causing a huge fire. Our forces did what they could to suppress that fire and managed to prevent a major explosion of the whole facility, but the situation was extremely dangerous.

The Russians are even using 500-kilogram conventional bombs. Imagine what that could look like. We don’t have adequate protection from the air, so they can bomb many objects, including critical infrastructure. We are fighting, but we need some support—some help in the form of protection for our skies. Then we can better protect the hazardous sites.

As I said, yesterday the Russians attacked the Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology, a major center for scientific research. They tried to make excuses about their attacks on such facilities, saying that Ukraine was about to develop nuclear weapons with help of the United States, which is obviously fake. The Kharkiv Institute was targeted as one potential place for weapons production.

Now this is just stupid. Among the other targets they said might be involved, they listed even an institute working on issues related to the safety of nuclear power plants, located in downtown Kyiv. I don’t know about their intentions—whether they will use them as an excuse for further strikes on Kyiv. There is air defense capacity in the capital, but Russia still has missiles that may hit the city. Just several hundred meters from there is another institute of nuclear research, with a small research reactor. It’s still very dangerous.

What the Country Needs

INTERVIEWER  This is the first human attack on a nuclear reactor. It didn’t involve nuclear weapons, but as an attack involving potential radiation release, is it something we could describe as nearly similar to Hiroshima or Nagasaki?

YOSCHENKO  I’m not sure that we can say that. The attacks in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were intentional, aiming at the killing of people and destruction of cities. Here, this attack was intentional, and it could produce a very dangerous situation, but I don’t know that the Russians had this specific aim.

One Russian aim is to threaten Europe, to threaten us, to get some sort of advantage in talks with Europe. I have no confirmation that they were really planning to intentionally do something so dangerous for the sake of that potential advantage in talks. In general, though, NPPs are potentially dangerous, and should be excluded from military operations. Nuclear power plants must never be targeted. Attacks on such objects are terroristic attacks.

INTERVIEWER  Do you think there will be further attacks against this power plant, or others in Ukraine?

YOSCHENKO  It can happen. The plan was to hold a new round of talks today between Russia and Ukraine, and I think they will try to gain some advantages before those talks. The Russians announced yesterday that they will bomb or shell our industrial facilities related to military defense. I expect this day will be very hard for us.

This is not about strategic facilities only. In many cases—most cases—they are bombing civilian objects. These are people’s houses. These are kindergartens. Up to forty kids have been killed in Ukraine so far, and hundreds more adults are dead. As I heard in today’s news, more than 200 schools have been ruined. These are not military objects; they are bombing everywhere and targeting everything.

INTERVIEWER  In connection with all of these attacks, not just on nuclear facilities, what would you ask of NATO, the United States, Europe, or Japan?

YOSCHENKO  We have repeatedly asked for the establishment of a no-fly zone over Ukraine. This is the only thing that can work to defend our country. We’ve showed that on land we can effectively protect ourselves, but we don’t have an effective system for protection from the air. For a week or so, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has asked for this every day. A no-fly zone is something that could help us.

INTERVIEWER  Russian people are playing a key role to resolve this situation. Could Russians protesting against Putin accomplish something here?

YOSCHENKO  Yes, there have been protest actions in many cities in Russia. Many of those people were detained by police. But while they can protest, they can hardly accomplish much in Russia. I know that many of them support us, but just yesterday I had an exchange with my Russian colleague, and I learned that more than 70 percent of the Russian population supports military action in Ukraine, according to the latest polls. So even if some people protest, they cannot change Russian policy or impact Putin. The Russian authorities are very high above those people. I’m rather skeptical about their ability to stop the war that’s underway. But I would be happy to be proved wrong.

INTERVIEWER  To conclude, what would be your message to the world, and to Japan in particular? What can be done?

YOSCHENKO  I know there have been numerous recent actions in Tokyo and Osaka, and probably other cities, in support of Ukraine. We Ukrainians appreciate the support that we have from Japan. We appreciate the support we have from all over the world. Ever since February 24, I have received dozens of messages from people—some of whom I last contacted 10 or 20 years ago. These messages are coming from all over the world.

We are grateful for this support. I hope that somehow, together, we can stop Russia. Ukraine needs peace. That would be my message to the world.

(Based on a March 7, 2022, online interview in English. Banner photo: A flash is seen at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant as Russian forces attack the facility on March 4, 2022. Courtesy Zaporizhzhia NPP YouTube feed; © Jiji.)

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