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The politics behind Ukraine’s alarming nuclear warning – POLITICO

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Kyiv is using every possible lever in an effort to convince the West that it too is threatened by Russian aggression – including repeated and sometimes exaggerated warnings of nuclear disaster. for the rest of Europe.

Since the first day of Vladimir Putin’s war with Ukraine, when Russian troops captured the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site in a gunfight, the country’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his officials have warned. about a repeat of the explosion that caused the fallout to spread across Europe.

“Our defenders are giving their lives so that the tragedy of 1986 will not be repeated,” Zelenskyy said. Written that day. “This is a declaration of war against the whole of Europe.”

Eight days later, Zelenskyy said a nighttime attack damaged an administrative building at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, the continent’s largest, “could be the end of history for Ukraine and Europe.”

On Wednesday, Ukraine’s nuclear facility Energoatom speak The power cut at the Chernobyl site, which is still shut down, means that the cooling systems will be shut down and “the release of radioactive materials into the environment will occur. The wind could transfer the radioactive cloud to other parts of Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and Europe. “

These claims are part of a highly effective campaign if – during the most recent Chernobyl – the Ukrainian media attack alarms against missile attacks and Russian false claims. .

It is easy to see why Ukraine, frustrated with Europe’s continued buying of Russian oil and refusing to implement a no-fly zone despite intense civilian bombing, thinks it still needs to put pressure on the Europeans. to overcome the brutality of the Russian Onslaught and the dangers it poses. The problem is that the nuclear warnings have created a dilemma for Ukraine’s allies and nuclear safety agency, and frustrated the shape-conscious nuclear industry. Photo.

According to international and national nuclear authorities, Russia’s behavior is dangerous, but Ukraine’s nuclear facilities do not pose an imminent threat across Europe. The situation is being handled very seriously but the design of modern nuclear facilities means that most worst-case scenarios will result in local fallout – devastating for Ukraine but not a threat. danger to Europe more broadly.

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Rafael Mariano Grossi has repeatedly expressed concern about nuclear safety in the wake of conflict, but never has the organization warned of the danger. clearly and instantaneously outside Ukraine.

German Federal Office for Radiation Protection speak Fourth, based on available information on the situation at Chernobyl, “there is no risk of radiation effects in Germany.” Belgian, Finland and Polish Nuclear safety agencies have also made similar statements.

Lars van Dassen, executive director of the World Institute for Nuclear Security, said that in the most extreme case of intentional nuclear sabotage involving a large explosion, the potential for unpredictable effects could affect affect other countries. “If a bomb is dropped on a nuclear reactor, then we have a new situation.”

With Russia’s war effort increasingly frustrated, Western governments are concerned about how far Putin can go.

The Ukrainian government and the Energoatom nuclear facility did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Information warfare

As Russian forces appear to be committing more and more war crimes, the West’s reluctance to risk a direct conflict with Moscow has Kyiv warn that Putin’s aggression will not stop. in Ukraine.

Clint Watts, a distinguished fellow at the Institute for Foreign Policy Studies and a former US counterterrorism officer, said Zelenskyy’s nuclear warning “probably” was designed to make that threat became popular in the rest of Europe. He said the Ukrainians may also be trying to focus immediate attention on the dangers of Russian behavior around sensitive locations to try to avoid accidents.

This is not the first time Ukraine has solicited Chernobyl for attention. In 2018 government officials alert about a “second Chernobyl” after Russian separatists stopped maintenance at a radioactive mine in the Donbas region.

“In many newsrooms around the world, if the keyword ‘nuclear’ is used, it will create a shockwave in media coverage,” Watts said.

That has been the case for the past two weeks, with headlines often responding to statements from Zelenskyy, his ministers or comments in the three-times daily “war bulletin” sent to journalists. More sober assessments from the IAEA are often less noticeable.

That makes it difficult for Ukraine’s allies to map between supporting the besieged government in Kyiv and giving the public a clear assessment of the danger they face.

The answers were different. Following the Zaporizhzhia attack, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson aligned himself with Zelenskyy, in a statement saying the move “can now directly threaten the safety of the whole of Europe”.

US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield told an emergency meeting of the 15-member Security Council later that day: “The world narrowly averted a nuclear disaster.” .

Both claims dominate the news headlines.

Zelenskyy has accused Moscow of engaging in “nuclear terrorism” through deliberate and dangerous actions – a statement echoed by Baltic leaders Gitanas Nausėda of Lithuania and Kaja Kallas of Estonia.

While Russia is clearly the aggressor and may be using its nuclear sites to stir anxiety in the West, the Ukrainian authorities have played their part in dispelling the fear of Russia. general public.

The Europeans were clearly wary. Iodine tablets – which help protect the thyroid gland in the event of a nuclear accident – are suddenly out of stock in pharmacies in Belgium, France, Germany and through Northern Europe nationled pharmaceutical associations and government agencies to issue warnings against taking the drug without official guidelines.

Germany’s most famous weather presenter Jörg Kachelmann put forecast on wind direction from Chernobyl in its reports.

Other Western politicians have refrained from repeating (or rewriting) the IAEA’s ongoing assessments, which continue to confirm the dire situation but do not indicate a possible Europe-wide danger. Europe. Some, including French President Emmanuel Macron, speak Nuclear threat needs to be stopped immediately.

Permanent Representative of Russia to International Organizations in Vienna Mikhail Ulyanov speak last week “nothing unusual is happening at Ukraine’s nuclear facilities right now.” He added that “Russia, as a country with a developed nuclear industry, is fully aware of the potential risks and intends to do everything to ensure proper safety there.”

Risk assessment

Some of the allies began to come into direct conflict with the Ukrainians.

Immediately following this week’s warning from Energoatom about the Chernobyl power cut, US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm tweeted A U.S. government analysis states that “a blackout does not pose a short-term risk of radioactive radiation.”

Officials are also wary of the downside risks of a fast-moving, unpredictable conflict whose information and motives are elusive. Instinct is misguided in terms of extreme caution and even alarm when it comes to atomic energy.

“If someone sneezes into a French nuclear power plant there is a procedure and a scandal. And now we are at war in a country with the largest nuclear power plant in Europe. So this is implicitly a very serious situation,” said an EU official.

Nuclear industry and safety experts have warned that accidents can happen because nuclear power plants are not designed to operate in a war zone.

The nuclear industry, despite significant safety improvements in the interim, is still perceived by the public as a hazard that is partly related to the Chernobyl accident. Ukraine’s claims also put them in a difficult position.

“We need to be clear, as with everything, the concept of risk,” said Jessica Johnson, communications director at Foratom, a Brussels-based trade association for the nuclear energy industry in Europe. zero does not exist. But she said that the Ukrainian authorities “decided to issue a certain type of message, which may have exaggerated the situation”.

“We understand why they would… but we’re not sure that communicating in this way helps in some countries, it can cause a bit of unnecessary panic,” she said.

Valérie Faudon, a delegate from the French Association of Nuclear Energy, said: “Zelenskyy said meaningless things about the Chernobyl site itself because the reactors had been out of service for 20 years. this is not very responsible, “note that the risk of a Europe-wide accident at Chernobyl“ is very low and it will be zoned. ”

What cannot be localized is how public statements spread alarm and panic. “It’s a technique that can be used by any party,” Watts said. “But then it started creating a lot of dummy scenarios where you couldn’t really get past the noise to know the real seriousness of what was happening.”

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