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Ukraine Accuses Russia of Firing Missiles Over 3 Nuclear Power Plants, Raising Fear of a New Disaster

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Nuclear watchdogs are expressing alarm over safety conditions at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which has been under Russian control since early March after a fight that led to a fire near one of the plant’s reactors. It is the largest nuclear power plant in Europe and located in the largest city in southeastern Ukraine still under Ukrainian control. The Ukrainian government accused Russia of launching two missiles that flew over the plant earlier this week, and says Russian missiles have also flown near two other nuclear power plants in the country. Ukrainian energy expert Olexi Pasyuk, deputy director of the group Ecoaction, notes that Russian forces likely already disturbed radioactive materials at the Chernobyl zone, scene of the world’s worst nuclear disaster in 1986. “Zaporizhzhia, where you have reactors in operation and they continue to work now, is a far more dangerous situation,” says Pasyuk.

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

AMY GOODMAN: The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency is expressing alarm over safety issues at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine. Russian forces seized the plant in early March after a fight that led to a fire near one of the plant’s reactors. This week the Ukrainian government accused Russia of launching two cruise missiles that flew at low altitudes over the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. Ukraine says Russian missiles have also flown over two other nuclear power plants in Ukraine.

The IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi described the situation at the plant as a “red light blinking” issue. Zaporizhzhia is the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, and it’s located in the largest city in southeastern Ukraine still under Ukrainian control. During a news briefing Thursday in Vienna, Grossi addressed the reports of Russian missiles flying over nuclear power plants.

RAFAEL GROSSI: Any such development, if confirmed, would be extremely serious. I have been saying from the first day of this crisis that the physical integrity of nuclear facilities is an absolute must. And, of course, a missile going astray, or something like this, could have significant — a very significant impact. But we need to go back to Zaporizhzhia. It’s extremely important. In Zaporizhzhia, you have tens of thousands of nuclear material, plutonium, enriched uranium. And we have to be verifying that. So, it’s still the open question that we have at the moment.

AMY GOODMAN: IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi, speaking Thursday after returning from a trip to Ukraine, where he visited the Chernobyl nuclear power station on Monday, on the 36th anniversary of the plant’s meltdown. Russia seized Chernobyl in late February and occupied the highly contaminated area until late March. Grossi vowed to help Ukraine repair damage caused during Russia’s occupation. He praised workers at the plant for helping to prevent what could have been another nuclear disaster.

RAFAEL GROSSI: In this case, what we had was a nuclear safety situation that was not normal, that could have developed into an accident. I think the first credit must go to the operators, to these people here, because they carried on their work in spite of all the difficulties, in spite of the stress, in spite of the fact that they could not be working normally. They continued working as if nothing had happened, so they kept the situation stable, so to speak.

AMY GOODMAN: The 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster was the worst nuclear meltdown in world history.

We’re joined now by Olexi Pasyuk. He is deputy director of the Ukrainian NGO Ecoaction, where his focus is on energy and nuclear energy, joining us from Ukraine.

Olexi, thanks for being with us once again. Can you talk about this week, I mean, the significance of the 36th anniversary of Chernobyl, with the IAEA director coming to mark that, and at the same time, a few days later, these reports that Russian missiles flew very low down over the largest nuclear power complex in Europe at Zaporizhzhia?

OLEXI PASYUK: Indeed. I mean, Chernobyl is exactly a place which demonstrates what the nuclear industry accident could be, right? It’s huge areas of land which continue to be polluted with radioactive materials. Back in '86, it was a huge impact for people who lived there. You had hundreds of thousands who had to flee. And it was an amazing cost, because, basically, it's still Soviet Union, which started to deal with the accident — it’s only recently we finally got safe containment of a destroyed reactor, which international community paid over $2 billion.

So, yes, and, of course, this is particularly kind of a great demonstration of the risk when Russians are coming. Russian army came and occupied Chernobyl power plant. I mean, that’s the site where we don’t have operating nuclear reactors, so it’s less of the risk of the accident of that scale, but we have spent nuclear fuel there, which could also be destroyed and have a release of radioactive materials in the air.

But, of course, Zaporizhzhia, where you have reactors in operation and they continue to work now, is far more dangerous situation also because it was directly attacked. You know, I have to remind that this concern was in place back from 2014, when the war started in Ukraine, in eastern Ukraine, and it was just a couple of hundred kilometers away. And there was already then a discussion: What if missile basically goes the wrong way and attack reactors themselves or the nuclear spent storage facility, and we will have a release? But what happened is that, actually, we just had an attack when the site was shelled by Russian tanks. And it was a very serious accident, because there are different scenarios of what can go wrong at the nuclear power plant, and you don’t necessarily need to be directly hitting a reactor or storage to cause problem, because these are the systems where you constantly have to cool down the fuel, and if you have an interruption in the electricity supply and cooling systems stop operating, you start getting into this accident of fuel melting.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you comment on — despite the fact of the risks, there are reports that European nations are embracing the possibility investing in more nuclear energy to be less reliant on gas and oil. What would this mean? And also, what does it mean for Ukraine? What message do you have for them?

OLEXI PASYUK: Well, indeed, there are a few of these discussions, but I think there are different voices on that. For example, in Europe, with all the gas crisis, nuclear is being considered as one of the answers, not so much about building new reactors, because it’s long and very expensive, but also there is also an option to extend lifetime of existing reactors, like — and particularly Germany was looking into these options not to close reactors which they’re supposed to close. And they come up with the kind of assessment that it will not make sense, that the risks associated with nuclear is far bigger than benefits, particularly, for example, in this story with natural gas. The issue is that gas, to a large degree, is used for industry and for heating, while that would not be simply compensated by electricity. It’s a far more complicated issue.

But I think it’s interesting that now we have this demonstration of, you know, a rather theoretical story. It was always theoretical. What happens if there is a military attack on nuclear? And it was never properly considered. It was always seen as something not very realistic. But now everywhere it should be considered as the kind of setting up a nuclear bowling pole of a kind, let’s say, which can become attacked and have destruction. You know, it brings me back to my school time, when we have the big independence movement in late '80s in Ukraine, still as a part of the Soviet Union. And I was handed, you know, these leaflets on the streets of Kyiv, where there were a map of Ukraine with the reactors being shown. And the article basically was saying, “Look, Soviet Union, Russia have planted these nuclear bombs on our territory.” And, of course, it was this post-Chernobyl moment where the whole anti-nuclear movement was very much connected to independence. But now we're basically getting the proofs that it’s very real, it’s very practical, and that nuclear brings so many security issues that — yeah, that it isn’t worth it.

I also would point out on the political leverage that Russia is getting with nuclear technology. We currently have in European Union a number of countries which operate Soviet-designed reactors and which are dependent on Russian fuel. So, it’s similar to gas, you know? We constantly were talking about these gas wars between Ukraine-Russia, Europe-Russia. It was happening for the last couple of decades, when they would just cut on supply, but —

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me ask you something, on that issue —

OLEXI PASYUK: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: — of Soviet reactors, Russian reactors. The U.S. and Europe are imposing a number of sanctions on Russian oil and gas. Interestingly, the U.S. is not imposing sanctions on Russian uranium, which it imports. Can you comment on this? Do you think it should be included in the sanctions list?

OLEXI PASYUK: Yes, it certainly should be. I think it’s — you know, this war is very important. As West don’t want to directly intervene militarily, it should use these economic tools. And Rosatom, this nuclear Russian company, this is exactly one of the tools which, as I just was saying, Russia is using as political tool internationally. And it should be basically under sanctions, as well.

There are some of the steps which are happening. For example, in Germany, there are some common joint companies which are reviewing their agreements with Russia. But most of the companies don’t. And I think this is also a moment which expose how much different countries, including U.S., are dependent on Russian nuclear industry.

So, yes, I definitely would say that all kind of sanctions on Russian energy supply, and nuclear, in particular, should be implemented. Unfortunately, it’s complicated. I think it’s problem that we don’t realize the scale. For example — for example, what happened in last week, that despite there is a ban on the plane flying to Russia from Europe, there was a special agreement to have one plane coming from Russia to Slovakia to bring nuclear fuel. So, I mean, that shows the scale of this kind of dependence and importance of that.

AMY GOODMAN: And you have this incredible irony that, of course, President Zelensky is really pushing hard for sanctions to be imposed by European countries and the U.S. on Russia oil and gas, but you’ve got the pipelines of Russia going through Ukraine to Europe, and Ukraine is not cutting those off. I think 30% of the fuel that goes through there — 30% of Europe’s fuel that goes through there is through Ukraine.

OLEXI PASYUK: Yeah, but because, I mean, it would be probably wrong politically for Ukraine now dictate Europe whether it buys it or not. It asks, right? So, of course, it’s important to maintain there, especially in the situation when the way out is really defeating Russia on the ground, which Ukraine is struggling to do. And it brings us back to the situation in Zaporizhzhia, you know? The reality is that we cannot guarantee nuclear safety in Ukraine unless the war is over. And we have to remember that Russian army is still staying at Zaporizhzhia power plant, which is still operating. And the issue is, we don’t know how it will be over, because now it’s a kind of a situation of some kind of unclear stability, when we don’t know what is happening on the station, but there is not active combat is happening. But at certain moment, Russian troops will need to retreat, and we don’t know how it will be happening and what will be happening then.

AMY GOODMAN: Olexi, we want to thank you so much for being with us. Olexi Pasyuk, deputy director of the Ukrainian NGO Ecoaction, focusing on energy, and particularly nuclear energy. Please be safe. Speaking to us from western Ukraine.

Next up, we go to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Atlantic journalist Ed Yong about the — what does he call it? — the “Pandemicene,” how the climate emergency could spark the next pandemic. Stay with us.

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