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Russia’s Unprecedented Shelling of Ukrainian Nuclear Plant Raises Fears of Another Chernobyl

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Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has accused Russia of “nuclear terror” after Russian forces shelled and subsequently set on fire the largest nuclear power plant in Europe on Friday morning. The fire at the Zaporizhzhia plant burned for hours but reportedly did not spread to any of the plant’s six reactors before the Russians ultimately seized the site. Ukraine heavily relies on nuclear power, with 15 active nuclear power reactors across the country. Targeting any of these reactors — or even deactivated reactors at Chernobyl — could result in a catastrophic nuclear radiation leak that could make the surrounding region, and even most of Europe, uninhabitable. We host a roundtable discussion with Ukrainian energy expert Olexi Pasyuk in western Ukraine, Russian environmentalist and 2021 Right Livelihood Award Laureate Vladimir Slivyak and Greenpeace nuclear specialist Shaun Burnie, author of a new report on severe nuclear hazards at the Zaporizhzhia plant in Ukraine. “No state has been invaded with such a large nuclear power program,” says Burnie. “We’re in new territory here.” The report says the only solution is immediate end to war.

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

AMY GOODMAN: Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has accused Russia of “nuclear terror” after Russian forces shelled and then seized the largest nuclear power plant in Europe overnight. Russia’s shelling of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant sparked a fire that burned for hours, but it reportedly did not spread to any of the plant’s six reactors. Zelensky recorded a brief video message after the plant was attacked.

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKY: [translated] The Russian military has to be stopped. Call on your politicians immediately. Ukraine has 15 nuclear reactors. If there is a nuclear explosion, this will be the end of everybody, the end of Europe. This will mean the evacuation of the whole Europe. Only immediate action from Europe can stop the Russian troops. Don’t let Europe die in a nuclear catastrophe.

AMY GOODMAN: In a message posted on Facebook, Ukraine’s nuclear regulatory body said Russian forces have captured the plant but that Ukrainian workers are continuing to work on the premises. The regulatory body warned, quote, “loss of the possibility to cool down nuclear fuel will lead to significant radioactive releases into the environment,” that could, quote, “exceed all previous accidents at nuclear power plants, including the Chernobyl accident and the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant,” end-quote.

World leaders have denounced Russia’s shelling of the nuclear power plant. The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv has accused Russia of committing a war crime. Meanwhile, the Russian military has accused Ukrainian forces of setting part of the plant on fire, describing it as a, quote, “horrible provocation.” The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Grossi, however, said the plant was hit by a Russian projectile. Grossi offered to meet with Russia and Ukraine to ensure no other nuclear plants are targeted in the fighting.

RAFAEL GROSSI: We, of course, are fortunate that there was no release of radiation and that the integrity of the reactors, in themselves, was not compromised — but, yes, the plant, in a wider sense. But it is obvious that when we all agree on these principles, words must mean something, and we have to act in consequence. So, for us, the IAEA, it is time for action. We need to do something about this. … I have indicated to both the Russian Federation and the Ukraine my availability and dispossession to travel to Chernobyl as soon as possible so that these seven crucial pillars are never again compromised. The idea behind this initiative of mine, as director general of the IAEA, is to agree on a framework and on a compromise that would commit to not compromise these principles that we all subscribe and agree to.

AMY GOODMAN: Again, that’s Rafael Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Critics of nuclear power have been warning for weeks of the dangers posed of a war in an area so heavily dependent on nuclear power. Ukraine has 15 nuclear power reactors at four facilities around the country, as well as the deactivated reactors at the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site. In 1986, one of Chernobyl’s four reactors exploded, precipitating the worst nuclear accident in history. Last week, Russian forces captured the Chernobyl site, presumably to open the highly contaminated Chernobyl exclusion zone for their military drive to Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital.

We’re joined now by three guests. In western Ukraine, Olexi Pasyuk is with us, deputy director of Ukrainian NGO Ecoaction, where his focus is on energy and nuclear energy. In Berlin, Germany, we’re joined by Vladimir Slivyak, a co-chair of the leading Russian environmental organization Ecodefense. He won the 2021 Right Livelihood Award — the “alternative Nobel Peace Prize” — for defending the environment and mobilizing grassroots opposition to the coal and nuclear industries in Russia, where he’s usually based. And in Edinburgh, Scotland, Shaun Burnie is with us, the senior nuclear specialist with Greenpeace. He just co-authored a report on severe nuclear hazards at Zaporizhzhia plant in Ukraine. The report says the only solution is an immediate end to war.

Olexi Pasyuk, we’re going to begin with you in western Ukraine. Talk about what you understand took place and what the threat is right now, not only to all of Ukraine.

OLEXI PASYUK: Hello, everyone.

Well, I have to stress that this risk was discussed already back in 2014, because there was already — I mean, we are in war, basically, since then, and we had already military operations, but then it was maybe like 200 kilometers away from Zaporizhzhia, and that was already an issue of concern.

Yeah, I think all of us here, as nuclear specialists, would agree that there is a high risk, and you have to realize that the risk is not necessarily from direct shooting into the reactor. It’s a very complex system where the main issue is constantly cooling nuclear fuel — either it’s in reactor or on the site — and this is the main concern, that even without a kind of massive hit to one of the reactors, we might lose control of what is on the station, and it can cause to the melting fuel and scenarios similar to Fukushima. I would also point out —

AMY GOODMAN: Olexi, I just wanted to ask you —

OLEXI PASYUK: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: — very quickly, to give us the lay of the land —

OLEXI PASYUK: Sure.

AMY GOODMAN: — of Ukraine when it comes to nuclear power, one of the most nuclear power-dependent countries in Europe. What, 50% of the energy comes from nuclear power. You’ve got Chernobyl in the north. And then explain the significance of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear complex, a massive complex, one of the largest in the world.

OLEXI PASYUK: Yeah. So, indeed, it have happened that Ukrainian policy was not very good by constantly increasing a part of nuclear in electricity production. I mean, without increasing new capacities, we were just counting on everything else. And that brought us a situation when we have now 15 units in the country. And, yes, indeed, at certain time we are getting over 50% of electricity. And it basically means that each of the reactors produce about, say, 5% of consumption in any single point, and then stopping each of it will have a significant imprint on electricity production. So, it’s another kind of side of the story rather than a nuclear accident itself.

What we have seen, for example, in Chernobyl site, where Russians came and took it over control, that they prevent staff from rotating, and it increases, say, pressure on the staff of the nuclear facilities. And, I mean, in previous stories where we had some kind of accidents, it could often be a human error which lead to kind of significant consequences, and that’s one of the worry which we have, yeah. I would also maybe note that at current — currently, Ukraine is disconnected from neighbors, and our electricity sector is working in isolation. So, if something goes wrong with some of the units, it will be difficult to maintain the integrity of the system and providing electricity. And unfortunately, we saw that it’s now a deliberate target by Russian army. We saw in small cities where there is resistance locally that there were airstrikes towards other energy-producing facilities and a heating — central heating system, basically putting pressure on civilians to kind of give up resistance.

AMY GOODMAN: So, if you could also tell us —

OLEXI PASYUK: But then — yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Both we’ve heard reports at Chernobyl, which is the route that the Russian army, coming from Belarus, goes through to get to Kyiv, that they’re holding the staff hostage, that they’re under enormous pressure there, and then we’re hearing that at Zaporizhzhia managers are being held at gunpoint to continue operating the plant. Do you have any news of either situation?

OLEXI PASYUK: Well, this makes it difficult, because it’s one of the tasks of Russian military to stop kind of communication, which is also disappointing, with the mainland. So, they keep only — I mean, with the outside world. They keep one official line, and then all communication is going through that, and it’s difficult to get the full picture of what is happening. In Chernobyl, there were opportunities kind of to observe from outside, like radiation meters. In the days when there were escalation in Chernobyl zone, we had the spike in measurements from the radioactivity, kind of equipment. So, on Zaporizhzhia, maybe you saw, there are like webcams, so you can see some of the site. But, yeah, I think it would likely go to the same scenario of blocking people on the site, and it’s currently Russian strategy to block cities and facilities. And that’s why one of the big communication from Ukrainian government is to keep, like, corridors to have people movement and to avoid catastrophes of different kind, either humanitarian or, in this case, technical.

AMY GOODMAN: And your response to the director general of the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, offering to go to Chernobyl to mediate between the Ukrainians and the Russians around the safety of these nuclear plants, Olexi?

OLEXI PASYUK: Well, we, of course, from one hand, appreciate the reaction of international community, but in Ukraine we feel that even more should be done. And you should understand that it’s also happening at the same moment when U.N. institution is trying to figure out what wording they use for this war, because they’re afraid to call things what they are, and they’re talking of conflicts and that kind of things. And also, reaction of bigger countries which are part of International Atomic Energy, like India, it would be nice that they will be much more louder. And, of course, it’s a pity to see that inside of Russia people who know very well about nuclear industries and who are responsible for nuclear safety, that they don’t put, inside of the country, pressure on Putin, basically saying that war should be avoided because it’s a very real threat for a very huge amount of people.

AMY GOODMAN: Olexi, I want to go for a minute from western Ukraine, where you are, to Shaun Burnie. He’s just outside Edinburgh, in Scotland. You’re the Greenpeace co-author of this new report on the severe hazards of the very plant where the fire broke out after the — well, what the IAEA says was a Russian projectile. Again, Russia is saying this is staged, or the Ukrainians set fire to get the international community involved. Shaun, can you put this in a national — in a global context, the significance of what’s happening at Zaporizhzhia, and even the occupation of the —

SHAUN BURNIE: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: — Chernobyl plant, that’s closed?

SHAUN BURNIE: Yeah. I mean, obviously, this is a unique moment in the history of nuclear power from the 1940s onwards. No state has been invaded with such a large nuclear power program. And nuclear reactors are vulnerable to many, many events, many accidents. We’ve seen Chernobyl, Fukushima Daiichi, 2011. But this is the first time we’ve seen a deliberate attack on a country which operates such large number of nuclear reactors. So we’re in new territory here. None of these reactors — and that applies to all the 94 reactors in the United States as much as it does to the Ukraine — none of these commercial power reactors were designed to withstand deliberate armed attack. The containment are extremely vulnerable, either deliberately or by accident, to be hit by projectiles.

The key issue — and Olexi knows this well, as does Vladimir — is the cooling function for the reactor cores, not just at the reactors that are operating, but also the spent fuel. And in the case of Zaporizhzhia, in 2017 — and that’s the last date that we have — there was over 2,200 tons of highly radioactive spent fuel. Over 800 tons of that were in reactor pools. These pools need to be constantly cooled with a reliable electrical supply, which is generally from off site, to the power plant. And, of course, in a time of war, the stability of the grid cannot be guaranteed. And at that point, the nuclear power plant is dependent upon its own electrical power system — in this case, emergency diesel generators, which have to kick in extremely fast. The amount of energy and heat in this nuclear fuel, either in the core or in the spent fuel pools, is such that you need massive amounts of electricity just to power the pumps to cool the fuel. And that is, in some cases, the sort of worst-case scenario, that there will be an off-site event that will cut down the electricity supply, and then you’re moving towards, very rapidly, the heating of the fuel, either in the pools or in the reactors, and you see scenarios very close, beyond what we saw in Fukushima Daiichi. So, yeah, we’re in a very, very difficult situation here.

I’m not particularly impressed, however, by the International Atomic Energy Agency. It spent 65 years, since its foundation in 1957, promoting nuclear power, including in Eastern Europe, defending the operation of these reactors and justifying them, saying that they can be safely operated. Well, the IAEA now is trying to claim that it’s going to come to the rescue? That’s just not credible.

AMY GOODMAN: Why?

SHAUN BURNIE: The IAEA basically has an interest in downplaying. So, for example, this morning’s press conference, Director Grossi was asked specifically a question on spent fuel at Zaporizhzhia, and his response was like one word: “There is” — two words, three words: “There’s no issue.” Well, sorry, there’s hundreds of tons of spent fuel in cooling ponds inside the reactor containment, that are absolutely dependent on electrical supply, off grid, in a war zone. That is an issue. The diesel generators — and Olexi knows this far better than I — there’s ongoing questions over the last years that have been raised about the reliability of the diesel generators, Russian-supplied, and, since 2014, serious problems in terms of replacement parts. So, yeah, there is a big issue with spent fuel, but according to the IAEA this morning, it’s not an issue.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, you have the city, for example, of Mariupol, in the south, where the reports are the bombardment has cut power, water and heat. What that would mean if power and water, in particular, where spent fuel rods are put, and if there isn’t water, would melt down, means for a power plant, Shaun?

SHAUN BURNIE: Well, I worked in Japan for more than 30 years. I started working in Fukushima prefecture in 1995. And I never — I knew there was a serious problem with the plants in terms of seismic resistance — never expected three reactors to suffer meltdown in a matter of hours. And, you know, it’s a very difficult situation. We, of course, are clearly opposed to nuclear power. We get accused of exaggerating the risks and the threats. And we’re in a war situation. The people of Ukraine are suffering on so many different levels. How do you talk about these subjects without being accused of exaggerating the risks? And we don’t want to do that. The scenarios are — the variables are enormous — one reactor, six reactors, the 15 reactors in Ukraine. So, you’ve got to be a little bit careful, but you also need to try and explain what those vulnerabilities are.

And what we’ve looked at with this latest assessment is that a 30-kilometer exclusion zone, a no-fly zone, they will reduce in some ways the hazards, but, actually, particularly because of this issue of the dependence on the grid, the only way that you can remove the military risk to these reactors is to end the war immediately. The other risks will continue. The contamination exists in Chernobyl. That will not go away. The hazards from the reactors, even if there’s no war, they are there. And that’s why Olexi and others, Ecoaction, over the years and years have been challenging the Ukrainian authorities. Today is not the time to be talking about that. But the IAEA, they’re part of the problem here. They have justified the operation of these reactors, which are targets in war. And it will be the people of the Ukraine, but also potentially wider Eastern Europe, Western Europe, that will be the victims. They’re already the victims of this war. The last thing they need is to be faced with a nuclear disaster.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Vladimir Slivyak into this conversation. And it’s very important that we have both Olexi, speaking to us from western Ukraine, Olexi Pasyuk, a Ukrainian anti-nuclear leader, environmental leader with the NGO Ecoaction, and Vladimir Slivyak, who is with the Russian organization Ecodefense, usually lives in Russia. We’re speaking to him in Berlin. He won the 2021 Right Livelihood Award, the “alternative Nobel Prize,” for defending the environment and mobilizing grassroots opposition to the coal and nuclear industry. If you could comment on what this means? And it’s unusual to have a Russian and a Ukrainian, I dare say, antiwar and pro-environment activists on in this conversation. Vladimir, if you’d like to say something first to Olexi in western Ukraine?

VLADIMIR SLIVYAK: Well, first of all, I agree with everything that my colleagues just said, that we are on the brink of a new nuclear disaster. And there are 15 nuclear reactors in Ukraine right now, but only one is enough to repeat what happened in Chernobyl back in 1986 or in Fukushima, if you like. And I think the war should be stopped right now; otherwise, it’s going to be — wow, I just really don’t want to think about what it will be if war will not be stopped.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about the significance of this? And from your understanding as a Russian who lives in Russia — right now you’re traveling through Berlin — what do you think President Putin is intending right now?

VLADIMIR SLIVYAK: Well, President Putin wants to take over Ukraine for reasons he probably knows. I don’t know what are those reasons. He attacked a neighboring country. He put at risk people there. He actually ordered the Russian army to go and kill people there, and maybe even go and attack and take over control of nuclear power plants in the Ukraine. This is what’s obviously going on. And I don’t think anyone in Russia actually understands why Putin had started this war and what’s the reason for what’s going on. I mean, maybe some closest friends of Putin knows, but, in general, Russian public, no one really understands what’s going on and why Russia started this war. And there are thousands of people going in the street every day in Russia, in many places, and protesting. And they get arrested. They get beaten. They get jailed. There was over 7,000 of people arrested since the war started. And I think it’s a total disaster, what’s going on. And it will attack not only Ukraine; it will also attack Russia very much.

AMY GOODMAN: You have long been an activist in Russia who — deeply concerned about the dependence on fossil fuel and Europe’s dependence on Russia. Can you put this in the larger picture of that, of your work?

VLADIMIR SLIVYAK: Well, my organization existed for 30 years, and we’ve been all the time opposing nuclear power for various reasons, and fossil fuel, as well. We’ve been doing a lot of activities on climate. And obviously, if there is war going on, I mean, you cannot really think anymore about energy transition or just energy transition, climate change and climate action and everything like that. All of it just stopped. I mean, there is no room anymore to think about it, to lobby government over this. I think, I mean, if anyone actually hoped that Russia will do something for climate, now, I mean, there is no hope anymore. And I don’t think when, if ever Russia — if Russia ever come back to doing something for climate, I don’t know when exactly that will be happening.

AMY GOODMAN: Vladimir, I’m going to ask you to stay on for our next segment to talk about the crackdown on protest and speech in Russia, but I want to end this segment — again, the fire at the Zaporizhzhia plant, the concern about what’s going to happen with nuclear power. But I want to go back to Olexi, Olexi Pasyuk, with the Ukrainian NGO Ecoaction. And you are also, I mean, a Ukrainian Russian [sic]. You live now — you are in western Ukraine. You are undergoing this assault on your country. Your final thoughts and what it means to be a Ukrainian Russian?

OLEXI PASYUK: Well, I’m not Ukrainian Russian. There is a little bit of confusion about it. I use Russian language in everyday life, and that’s why I think that was the message.

AMY GOODMAN: Olexi, how many — what percentage of Ukrainians speak Russian?

OLEXI PASYUK: It’s difficult to say, but I think we’re kind of looking into — why it was an issue is because Putin is basically saying, “Russia is wherever somebody speaks Russian, and we are going to Ukraine to save Russians,” basically. And the interesting part of it, that the most people who are now most suffering are Russian-speaking Ukrainian and Russians who live close to Russian border. And that makes the whole story particularly crazy, because it completely undermines even the propaganda kind of rhetoric which Putin has.

So, well, I mean, we have to understand that Ukraine have been in some kind of war since 2014. There is also Crimea. There is eastern Ukraine. And the attitude — I mean, I was amazed even in 2014, when the Crimean war — I mean, when Russia occupied Crimea, that there was still some kind of sympathy towards Russian altogether in Ukraine. You would have like 60% have positive attitudes to Russians, who started the war in Ukraine, while very small percentage of Russians with positive attitude to Ukrainians, based on the kind of polls, because there was massive propaganda in Russia.

And it’s amazing how much this policy of Putin to kind of protect fractions basically turned everyone against him in the neighboring state. And yeah, at this moment, basically, everybody in Ukraine, all citizens in Ukraine, no matter on what nation they are, because we are many nationalities in the country, are standing together, and they’re ready to protect their country, and they’re fighting, sometimes with their bare hand.

And everybody should understand that this is a massive resistance, and we really hope to get support from everyone, particularly European leaders and international institutions and U.S. And it unfortunately would not work by saying, “Let’s stop war.” Russians don’t understand international treaties — I mean, Putin. There is a simple International Atomic Agency agreement not to use nuclear facilities, like we have now, in a situation of war. They ignore any international norms. So, unfortunately, we have to show very strong resistance, including military, to stop this.

AMY GOODMAN: Olexi Pasyuk, I want to thank you for being with us, deputy director of the Ukrainian NGO Ecoaction, speaking to us from western Ukraine. Please stay safe. Shaun Burnie is with Greenpeace. We’re going to link to your report, just outside Edinburgh, Scotland, on nuclear power and the analysis on severe nuclear hazards at the Zaporizhzhia plant in Ukraine, which you put out before the fire. And, Vladimir Slivyak, please stay with us, co-chair of the Russian organization Ecodefense. We’re going to talk, when we come back, about Russia’s escalating crackdown on civil society. Back in 30 seconds.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Eine kleine Nachtmusik, by Mozart, performed by the Rivne Symphony inside a mall in Rivne, Ukraine, that I recorded in 2018 after the U.N. climate summit in Poland, flew to L’vov, or Lviv, as it is called by Ukrainians, to visit my grandmother’s birthplace in Rivne, Ukraine. She was born in 1897 and lived ’til she was 108 years old.

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