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As Russia Seizes Chernobyl Site, Ukraine’s 15 Nuclear Reactors Pose Unprecedented Risk in War Zone

StoryFebruary 25, 2022
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Russian military activity near Ukraine’s nuclear sites have raised alarm, as triggering any of the volatile reactors around the country could cause nuclear catastrophe for the entire European continent. Russian troops have seized the site of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster and have reportedly taken staff hostage, raising fear that any disturbance could rerelease deadly radiation that has been sealed off for years. As Ukraine relies on nuclear power for 50% of its electricity, shutting down active nuclear reactors would alleviate the potential for nuclear catastrophe at the cost of leaving many deprived of electricity during the war. “This is the first time that we’ve ever seen a war zone in a location where there are operating nuclear power plants,” says Linda Pentz Gunter, international specialist at Beyond Nuclear. “Any manner of situations could lead to a catastrophic meltdown.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman.

Russia seized control of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the site of the world’s largest nuclear meltdown in 1986. The Ukrainian government warns this could lead to another ecological disaster at the site. While the plant is inactive, vast amounts of radioactive nuclear waste remain. There are already reports the level of radiation in the area has increased, perhaps because Russian military vehicles have driven through the exclusion zone, disturbing contaminated soil. Chernobyl is located 10 miles from Belarus and about 80 miles from Kyiv.

On Thursday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki talked about the situation at Chernobyl.

PRESS SECRETARY JEN PSAKI: We are outraged by credible reports that Russian soldiers are currently holding staff of the Chernobyl facilities hostage. This unlawful and dangerous hostage taking, which could upend the routine civil service efforts required to maintain and protect the nuclear waste facilities, is obviously incredibly alarming and greatly concerning. We condemn it, and we request their release.

AMY GOODMAN: Many nuclear experts say Chernobyl is just one nuclear risk facing Ukraine, which still operates four nuclear power plants with a total of 15 nuclear reactors. A disaster could occur if any of the reactors were damaged by a military strike, whether accidental or targeted, or if the reactors were forced offline for another reason, like a power outage, a fire, or if workers fled due to a threat of violence. Bloomberg reports this marks the first time a large-scale war has been waged in an area so dependent on nuclear power. Ukraine’s largest nuclear plant is located about 120 miles from the Donbas region, where separatists and the Ukrainian forces have been fighting for years.

We go now to Linda Pentz Gunter. She is an international specialist at the group Beyond Nuclear, which she founded. She recently wrote an article for CounterPunch headlined, “In the Line of Eternal Fire: Ukraine’s Nuclear Reactors.”

Linda, thanks for joining us. Can you talk about the significance of Russia taking hold of the nuclear isolation area of Chernobyl, what this means, and put it into the larger context of nuclear power in Chernobyl — in Ukraine?

LINDA PENTZ GUNTER: Certainly. And it was very moving to hear your Ukrainian guests earlier talk about the human tragedy that’s already unfolding. It can only get unimaginably worse if something were to occur at any of these nuclear sites.

The Chernobyl site, it’s not completely clear what’s happened there, in terms of whether there’s been any additional radioactive releases or the hostage situation. We do have a colleague who worked at the site, who’s no longer there but is still in touch, and what he told me yesterday was that the workforce is still in place, but they’re unable to make decisions and that it is occupied by the Russian forces. So, I don’t know whether that constitutes a hostage situation or just an immobilization of decision-making by the workforce.

But it’s a very, very volatile site. The fuel that’s stored there is quite unstable. In fact, less than a year ago, there was some increased neutron activity, which led to fears that there might be a chain reaction starting or even an explosion. So, to have any kind of conflict raging around the Chernobyl site is of extreme alarm, and more so, I think, the active reactors that you mentioned.

This is the first time that we’ve ever seen a war zone in a location where there are operating nuclear power plants. So that’s really an unprecedented situation. And, as you said, any manner of situations could lead to a catastrophic meltdown, even something as simple as the loss of off-site and then on-site power. We don’t know what’s going to happen to the grid in this situation. And if those reactors lose their off-site power and have to use their backup on-site power, that’s usually something like diesel generators, which obviously don’t last forever and don’t, in fact, always work.

So the whole situation is extremely alarming. Obviously, if we go to any kind of nuclear disaster, we’re adding to the existing humanitarian tragedy the release of potentially a massive amount of radioactivity, which would harm not only the people within Ukraine but would spread, depending on the direction of the wind, to Russia even and Belarus, and obviously to Europe and beyond. So it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to contemplate that anyone would deliberately attack any of these plants. But if they’re in the line of fire, they could take an accidental hit.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, what about a cyberattack? And again, what about if workers are afraid to come to work, what this could mean?

LINDA PENTZ GUNTER: Yes, a cyberattack, we’ve always thought was probably the most likely course of action, since we know that Russia is skilled in that department already. So, that would — if anything happens like that, which would disable the control of a reactor, that is of equal concern.

The situation with the workforce is that, unfortunately, nuclear power plants, even on a good day, are not walk-away safe. So, therefore, you would absolutely have to maintain a workforce there, no matter what. And that’s asking for a sacrifice. It was actually the sacrifice that was asked of the Fukushima Daiichi workforce by Naoto Kan, the then-prime minister, when TEPCO wanted to evacuate them during that disaster. They simply cannot leave. But, obviously, we’re all human beings, and the temptation, if you’re in the middle of a war zone, is that you want to flee with your family. And that just isn’t an option for nuclear plant workers.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about Zaporizhia, the significance and how large this area is and the fact that it’s in the midst of the fighting.

LINDA PENTZ GUNTER: Yes, I mean I looked at a map — I think it was put out by one of the media organizations yesterday to show where there have already been explosions. And one of those indications was dangerously close to Zaporizhia, which is the sixth reactor site. This is the largest power plant in Europe, 5,700-megawatt output — a massive radioactive inventory.

We must remember that in 1986, when Chernobyl exploded, it was a relatively new, single unit. And even that caused a humanitarian disaster, which we’re still seeing the results of today, because when that radioactivity gets out, it doesn’t just dissipate. It lasts forever. It gets into the DNA. We see problems down the generations of human health — birth defects, leukemias, thyroid cancers and so on. So, this is something that will go on forever, if in fact something happens, particularly at Zaporizhia, because it’s such a large site.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about what needs to happen right now?

LINDA PENTZ GUNTER: Well, as your previous speakers also addressed, we need, obviously, diplomacy and not war. I’m not — that’s not my area of expertise, so I don’t know how that should be guided. Somebody asked me yesterday, “Well, why don’t they just close the nuclear power plants down as a precaution?” Which is what happens, for example, in this country if there’s a major hurricane and it’s coming directly towards a nuclear plant. Sometimes, not always, but they should, they start to power down and close the reactors down. In Ukraine, those 15 reactors are responsible for 50% of the electricity supply. So that’s really not an option right now, when you’re in the middle of potentially a full-scale war, to cut off 50% of your electricity. So they’re in a no-win situation, as we are in the wider picture with this conflict. So we have to hope that clearer heads prevail.

AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.

LINDA PENTZ GUNTER: Yes, so we hope that nobody takes the drastic action of either deliberately attacking a nuclear plant or using nuclear weapons.

AMY GOODMAN: Linda Pentz Gunter, I want to thank you for being with us, international specialist at Beyond Nuclear.

And final breaking news: President Biden is nominating federal appeals court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to be the first Black woman on the U.S. Supreme Court. That announcement is coming today.

And that does it for our show. Democracy Now! is currently accepting applications for a human resources manager. Learn more and apply at

Democracy Now! produced with Mike Burke, Renée Feltz, Deena Guzder, Messiah Rhodes, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Camille Baker, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Juan Carlos Dávila, Hany Massoud, Mary Conlon. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

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