A Grave Hour
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The Chernobyl disaster in 1986 was among the worst nuclear accidents in world history. Now, the world is bracing for another.
“Humanity is just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation,” warned UN Secretary-General António Guterres earlier this month.
Thirty-six years ago, the explosion and fire at Chernobyl happened in the then-Soviet Union, while its impact was felt around much of Europe. Today, the ruined reactor is now in Ukraine. That experience is one reason why Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been issuing fervent calls for assistance to make sure another meltdown doesn’t occur in his country at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station, the largest in Europe – and currently under Russian control.
He has good reason to worry.
Fighting around the station could easily lead to damage that might trigger an ecological, humanitarian and political catastrophe, Zelenskyy recently warned. “If now the world does not show strength and decisiveness to defend one nuclear power station, it will mean that the world has lost,” Zelenskyy said in a video recently, according to Reuters. “It will lose to terrorism. And give in to nuclear blackmail.”
An errant shell could damage the device that regulates the reactor pressure and prevents explosions, the Moscow Times noted. They could strike it in a way that would disperse radioactive materials and cause widespread contamination – equivalent to a dirty bomb – or interfere with its pressurized water-cooling system, leading to a meltdown, the Washington Post said.
Shelling has already led locals to flee the region so as to avoid being caught in a radioactive cloud that could quickly affect people as far away as Belarus, Bulgaria, Moldova, Romania and Russia, the New York Times added. An accident would impact both armies and locals, and make the land uninhabitable for generations.
Russian troops now occupy Zaporizhzhia, which is almost 200 miles northeast of Kherson, a city that has seen intense fighting in recent weeks as Ukrainians fight to reclaim it from its Russian occupiers. Around 500 Russian troops are forcing nuclear power plant workers to stay at their desks, the BBC reported, while the troops use the plant as a military base.
But they might need to go soon. After suffering setbacks to Russian forces who have hunkered down in pro-Moscow separatist regions in the eastern part of the country, Ukrainian forces have made gains in the area, the US Department of Defense said.
Additionally, Ukrainian officials are now suggesting that Russia might mount a so-called “false flag” mission involving the plant – damaging it but blaming the Ukrainians to undercut international sympathy for their cause, the Guardian reported. Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev labeled that notion absurd, however, even for Ukraine’s “stupid Russophobic public,” wrote Al Jazeera.
Other factors might be at play. Russian President Vladimir Putin has already employed energy-related tactics to break Western Europe’s near-united opposition to his invasion that began in late February. As the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, Zaporizhzhia gives him enormous leverage in disrupting electricity supplies in the region when prices are already soaring, the Wall Street Journal explained.
Meanwhile, Rafael Mariano Grossi, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency is pleading with Russia and Ukraine to allow agency officials to visit and secure the plant, warning of the “highly volatile and dangerous situation.”
“This is a serious hour, a grave hour,” he told the UN Security Council. Detailing shelling and explosions in the past few weeks that forced the shutdown of the electrical power transformer, two backup transformers, and one nuclear reactor, he added that the situation is completely out of control.
So far, disaster has been avoided. But luck is not a strategy.