Please note, the introductory comments and the parenthetical comments are Mr. McConnell's and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation or the Friends of Ukraine Network.
We have expressed here before concern about the wartime dangers from Ukraine's nuclear power plants.
Putin's thuggish threats on the possible use of nuclear weapons are not the only nuclear danger his barbaric war presents Ukraine and the world.
In the translated article below our friend Yuri Kostenko makes the case that the International Atomic Energy Agency cannot be trusted when it says there are “no problems” at Ukraine’s nuclear power plants.
Written by: Elena Maksymenko
This is the English translation of an original article published on March 21, 2022 by the Novynarnia news site in Ukraine. Novynarnia is funded by the European Endowment for Democracy (EED).
One of dangers of the Russian-Ukrainian war is the nuclear threat. Not only can it manifest itself through the use of nuclear weapons, but also through strikes on nuclear power plants or other actions impacting the safety of nuclear power plants [NPPs].
Currently, the most vulnerable plants are the Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia NPP captured by [Russian] occupiers. At the former plant, actions taken by the Russian military resulted in energy being cut off. The buildings at the [Zaporizhzhia] Enerhodar plant were fired upon in plain sight by the Rascists [Russian fascists], who subsequently exploded ammunition on the site — later declaring that the power station now belonged to [Russia’s} Rosatom.
"Novynarnia” newsroom spoke with Yuri Kostenko to get analysis on the risks and possible scenarios of unfolding events at [Ukraine’s] NPP [nuclear power plants] resulting from the Russian invasion, and to assess how the international community should weigh in on this "nuclear" crisis.
Kostenko is a former Ukrainian Member of Parliament, Leader of the Ukrainian People’s Party, leading member of the People’s Movement of Ukraine [Rukh]. Between 1992-1994, he served as Ukraine’s Minister of Environmental Protection. From 1995 to 1998, he was the Minister responsible for Environmental Protection and Nuclear Safety. Kostenko served on the Presidential Commission for Nuclear Policy and Environmental Protection. He was Ukraine’s signatory to the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management. Among his many other positions, he headed Ukraine’s delegation in negotiations with Russia on nuclear disarmament. [I also note Kostenko has been a close friend for many years and in those early days of Ukraine's independence there were some critical and interesting meetings he had us schedule for him with United Stares officials regarding nuclear issues, including Ukraine's then nuclear arsenal. RAM]
Mr. Kostenko’s comments follow:
Problem 1: The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station produces a huge quantity of highly radioactive waste. Firstly, there is spent nuclear fuel. It is saved in storage pools which require constant cooling.
If the cooling system fails, all the fuel assembly rods can melt, emitting huge amounts of radiation in the pool, and subsequently in the outside environment. In addition to this, there is an ongoing production of hydrogen by radiolysis. So the site where the spent fuel is stored must be ventilated at all times, so as to prevent the formation of an explosive mixture which could lead to a major accident like the one that took place in the USSR in 1957. *
[*The 1957 explosion, known as the Kyshtym disaster at the Mayak plant in the east Urals, was one of the worse nuclear disasters in modern history. It released more radioactive contamination than the Chernobyl accident, spreading hot radioactive particles over more than 52,000 square kilometers.]
The Kyshtym nuclear disaster took place in the Chelyabinsk Oblast [province] at a [nuclear weapons] production site which produced highly enriched uranium and plutonium. Most of the information related to the accident has remained classified from the time of the Soviet Union. But what did emerge was confirmation that the release of highly radioactive waste – more precisely, a radioactive explosion
– happened because of a failure in the cooling system. Having caused the radioactive contamination of a huge territory, the radioactive cloud rose to two kilometers in the atmosphere, moving in the direction of the winds. Notwithstanding the fact that this happened in the northern boreal forests of the Taiga, nevertheless, a population of about 300,000 people were subjected to this radiation cloud.
A DISRUPTION IN THE SYSTEM HANDLING SPENT NUCLEAR FUEL AT THE CHERNOBYL NUCLEAR STATION SETS US ON A DIRECT PATH IN UKRAINE TO A REPEAT OF THE KYSHTYM NUCLEAR ACCIDENT.
Problem 2: The Chernobyl site’s damaged reactor. There are 200 tons of nuclear fuel located under that reactor. Currently, there is a modern system to monitor what is going on at that location. A disconnection to the power supply for the monitoring system can compromise the sarcophagus, which was covered by a new confinement structure.
Problem 3: The spent fuel at the Chernobyl power plant contains vast quantities of nuclear materials.
The plutonium and highly enriched uranium are part of the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. Loss of control over the movement [or transportation] of this nuclear waste, would trigger the potential for nuclear terrorism under the norms of international law.
In issuing its initial statement, the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] said that the situation at the Chernobyl station was calm, while, at the same time, confirming that it no longer had control over the nuclear storage facilities.
The IAEA is responsible for ensuring the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. It has oversight control in every country that operates an “atoms for peace” [peaceful nuclear energy] program, monitoring how much nuclear fuel has entered the country, where and in what condition the spent nuclear fuel is stored from which uranium and plutonium are extracted. This is the crux of what the IAEA does. The IAEA monitors every kilogram of fresh nuclear fuel and every kilogram of spent fuel through a sealed storage system, to which only the IAEA has access. It is continually monitored by camera, 24-hours a day, to see what goes on in the storage facility, and to monitor anyone who might enter.
Despite having been cut off from the system monitoring the Chernobyl atomic station, the IAEA has issued a statement saying that things are normal and calm.
Issuing statements to the effect that "everything is fine at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant," when in fact the site is overrun by thugs is, to say the least, completely unprofessional. Or it indicates that, as an institution, the IAEA has been rendered powerless. And it finds itself in this situation because of Russia. Specifically, because Russia leverages power and influence over it.
For five years, I headed Ukraine’s diplomatic delegation to the IAEA as Minister of Environmental Protection and Nuclear Safety. The strict measures that were formulated in international law to prevent nuclear terrorism, requiring countries to take unprecedented steps to counteract the dissemination of nuclear material, was the result of the IAEA’s efforts and was fully adopted by Ukraine’s nuclear safety legislation.
Thank God, the media reacted to the appeal made to leading countries for urgent action on the matter. I called on the United States and [President] Biden to personally warn Putin of the consequences in the event of any nuclear terrorism. I don’t know what led to the change, but, at any rate, the IAEA’s Director General, Raphael Grossi, changed his position on the matter, by voicing a now customary “concern”. Moreover, he is planning to visit Kyiv.
I’m not sure whether Grossi will make it to Kyiv, but this will be far from adequate. The IAEA, has the tools at its disposal, based on the norms of international law, and it is with these tools that Grossi should in effect be operating.
As regards the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station, the very same scenario that happened with the nuclear accident at Fukushima, Japan, can occur in Zaporizhzhia. [In Fukushima], the tsunami flooded the station’s circulating pumps and stopped the supply of water for the reactors, which became disabled. Once hydrogen had accumulated due to the failure of the cooling system, all the containment vessels, despite being designed to withstand a nuclear strike, were damaged, and a huge amount of radioactivity was released into the environment.
So, just think about the six nuclear reactors housed at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station – a force that exceeds the type of nuclear strike which all the world fears.
It is within these definitions that the IAEA should be operating today, rather than covering up the consequences of Russia’s nuclear terrorism.
Firstly, vis-à-vis Ukraine, the IAEA must issue a public statement on the world stage confirming that “Ukraine has NO nuclear program” (ie. Kyiv has no nuclear weapons) — that it never had one, nor could it have one. Russia is playing speculative games with this issue in an attempt to convince the world that it needs to conduct a "special op" against Ukraine to avert nuclear war.
The IAEA must totally refute this, just as the UN did when it issued a statement confirming that there are no biological weapons in Ukraine, and no military programs to this effect, since the UN has oversight control in this arena.
Secondly, the IAEA must urgently call a multilateral meeting at its headquarters in Vienna. Naturally, it must include the Russians. The meeting must lay out all the consequences of nuclear terrorism, which Russia is currently carrying out in Ukraine.
Because, this danger not only threatens Ukraine, but is equally a threat to the entire European continent.
In 1990, I was a member of a commission at the Ukrainian Parliament that investigated the causes and the consequences of the accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station. We clearly established that the operations personnel, who were later accused of unprofessionalism, acted absolutely professionally and in accordance with the guidelines that had been developed by the senior staff. They didn’t depart by a hair’s-breadth from the guidelines! So when, in their opinion, the working process of the reactor unit started changing for the worse, they pressed the button shutting down the nuclear reactor containing self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction. However, instead of the reaction stopping, there was an explosion of the reactor due to the uncontrollable escape of fast neutrons. The fault thus lies not with the operations personnel, but with the design of the high-power channel-type reactors (RBMK).
So, at the time, the IAEA broadcast to the world that what happened was due to mistakes by personnel, rather than the design flaws of the RBMK reactors. So, when Hans Blix (IAEA Director General in 1981— 1997) came here [to Ukraine], our commission presented all this evidence very accurately and professionally and expressed our dissatisfaction with the position of the IAEA that we considered unprofessional at the very least. At most, we considered it to be a position of cowardice, seeing that the international community was misled about the actual circumstances of the Chernobyl disaster.
Today, the IAEA is following the same script to a tee, just as it did with Chernobyl in 1986.
THE IAEA IS, IN FACT, LYING TO THE WORLD WHEN IT CLAIMS THERE ARE NO PROBLEMS, that everything is under control, that five Russian experts have arrived and “they control everything.”
Nowadays, our [Ukrainian] nuclear power specialists are more professional than Russian ones. At the very least, they work in a free democratic society, not in a totalitarian state.
Ukraine does not need consultants — what we need is for the IAEA to succeed in demanding that Russia pull its troops 30 kilometers away from both the Chernobyl nuclear power station and the Zaporizhzhia station. This would be the IAEA’s contribution to saving Europe from a nuclear war.
Today, international institutions have shown themselves to be absolutely ineffective. On the one hand, it’s the United Nations, where Russia — a member of the Security Council — is not only grossly violating and neglecting the UN Charter which demands that countries not attack each other, it is mocking the world with cynical disdain.
Instead of urgently calling a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly and taking the decision to remove Russia from the Security Council, or remove its veto power on issues related its aggression against Ukraine — what does the UN do? It expresses “concern” about what Russia is doing.
The same goes for the IAEA. The structure, upon which Russia has enormous influence, including a corruptive role, because it has remained one of the three founding member states of the IAEA. For this reason, Russia has a very strong influence — just like in other international organizations — upon the policy of these organizations, which confirms why the position taken by the IAEA is meaningless.
The same can be said about NATO, which is responsible for being actively engaged in developments that currently threaten security. A nuclear accident in Ukraine poses a direct threat to NATO countries, as they are located very close to Ukraine.
The “ostrich with its head in the sand” policies of international organizations vis-à-vis Russian nuclear terror and its war against Ukraine will either lead to a real change in their policy and they will finally start adhering to what’s written in international law, or these institutions will fall apart once Ukraine defeats Russia.
At the same time, there exists a more optimistic scenario, if the international community gets involved — together with NATO and the USA — to make Russia pull away from our nuclear power stations in Zaporizhzhia and Chernobyl.
This is the best scenario, at least as far as reducing the nuclear threat by a Russian terrorism for the entire European continent is concerned.
What NATO should have done first and foremost is close our sky above the nuclear power stations. They can’t close the sky above all of Ukraine, but they are obligated to close it over nuclear power stations. International law and countering nuclear terrorism demand this. I’m talking abut closing the sky over nuclear power stations and providing Ukraine with reliable missile defence systems to deter anyone aiming to attack nuclear facilities. In other words, provide us with everything needed for protection, including that of Europe. This is how international law should work, had there been the intent and political will.
Russia has never shown concern for the number of casualties it incurred in its slaughter campaigns whenever it took part in wars. It’s not only Russia that will suffer. When the Chernobyl reactor exploded, people said the hand of God had diverted the first wave of radiation from Kyiv, because the wind was blowing northeast. Thus, that first wave reached Russia, Belarus, and countries in Northern Europe — Norway, Sweden — then, other European countries. Afterwards, when the radiation levels decreased, the winds blew towards Kyiv.
God forbid, if a nuclear accident were to happen now, Putin’s neo-empire would likely suffer first. In today’s war, the behavior we are seeing is the modern version of the medieval wild horde whose roots harken back to the Tatar-Mongol horde [whose invasions were characterized by forced starvation, large-scale killings, and mass exodus] and whose mentality was driven by one single goal: take from others by means of slaughter, war, and outright confiscation — the way Russia has treated Ukraine.
Today, journalists possess the most powerful resource. Your information finds its way to regular people. It’s the average people that come out on the streets in Europe and America and say, “Give Ukraine modern weapons!”, “Close the sky!” They are not politicians, they may not understand the nuances, but they feel that it’s something Ukraine critically needs. And in this situation, when people realize that what’s going on poses a real threat to them, especially in Europe, they will take to the streets en masse and will be even more vocal in their demands for action.
Coordinator, External Relations U.S.-Ukraine Foundation’s Friends of Ukraine Network
Robert A. McConnell is a co-founder of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation and Coordinator of External Relations for the Foundation’s Friends of Ukraine Network. He is Principal of R.A. McConnell and Associates. Previously, he has served as head of the Government Advocacy Practice at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, Vice President – Washington for CBS, Inc, and Assistant Attorney General in the Department of Justice during the Reagan Administration. email@example.com