Ukraine’s nuclear nightmare is just part of the war’s environmental horrors – POLITICO

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The Russian attack on the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine has spread nuclear fear across the continent.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy early Friday sent a warning “to all Ukrainians, to all Europeans, to all people who know the word Chernobyl”.

It is just one of the environmental catastrophes that can be unleashed by Moscow’s decision to wage war in a highly industrialized country.

“We are already seeing a massive, ecologically disastrous attack from Russia,” Olexiy Angurets, the head of Ukraine’s environmental NGO Zylenyi Svit, told POLITICO in a call from the city of Dnipro as he prepared to take part in their defense.

According to Ukrainian authorities, the fire in Zaporizhia was contained by sunrise and Russian forces had taken control of Europe’s largest nuclear facility, which supplies a quarter of Ukraine’s energy. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) called Essential equipment was not damaged. Nuclear Regulatory Agency of Ukraine called employees continued to work.

On Friday morning, IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said no radioactive material had been released but the situation remained “very tense and challenging”.

Analysts argued that a repeat of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster was unlikely because Zaporizhia uses different cooling technology. There is a “very limited risk” of a radioactive release even if a missile did hit the facility, said Leon Cizelj, president of the European Nuclear Society, and it would take a deliberate barrage to breach the concrete shell. Even then, “the effect will be limited to 10, 20 kilometers.”

Lars van Dassen, executive director of the World Institute for Nuclear Security, said: “Yes, things can go wrong, but not as bad as Chernobyl.”

Russia’s war in Ukraine is “salient,” said Richard Pearshouse, environment director at Human Rights Watch. Due to the presence of hundreds of chemical, metallurgical and mining sites, nuclear power plants and nuclear waste dumps, “the risks are enormous”.

Ukraine has them seventh largest installed nuclear capacity in the world and the second largest in Europe after France. Grossi said this week that the “ongoing military conflict taking place in a country that has a huge nuclear program” has put the organization on high alert. The Nuclear Safety Agency of Ukraine has asked the IAEA for help to ensure the safety of the facilities.

James Acton, co-director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, called Nuclear power plants “are not designed for war zones” and warned that “much of the fuel in these other reactors is significantly more radioactive than the fuel in Chernobyl”.

According to the IAEA, two storage sites for low-level radioactive waste in Kyiv and Kharkiv have already been hit. “These two incidents underscore the very real risk of damage to radioactive material facilities during the conflict, with potentially serious consequences for human health and the environment,” Grossi said.

Chernobyl again

Zelenskyy’s warning of a Chernobyl repeat came days after Russian troops fought their way into the real Chernobyl. The battle led to a spike in radiation levels, but authorities said even the worst-case scenario would not result in any contamination breaching the 30-kilometer exclusion zone around the site.

On Thursday, Ukraine told the IAEA that workers at Chernobyl face “mental pressure and moral exhaustion,” Grossi said calledemphasizing the need for staff to rest and rotate for safety reasons.

“They are the walls between survival and possible catastrophe,” said van Dassen.

In wars, the immediate suffering of the civilian population, the struggle for survival or the achievement of military goals outweigh other concerns. But amid the bomb-now-pay-later chaos, Pearshouse warned, “Environmental crises can amplify humanitarian crises and … those effects often last longer after the guns have gone silent.”

In the past, Russia resisted The UN tries to set standards for environmental protection in times of war.

While radiation hazards have garnered public attention, other industrial sites can also cause tremendous damage.

Enormous fires are already raging at oil depots and ammunition dumps. An analysis by Dutch peace NGO PAX, made available exclusively to POLITICO, used social media and satellite photography to identify more than two dozen sites where polluting spills, explosions or fires took place. These included power stations, chemical storage facilities and power plants.

In the recent wars in the Middle East, said Wim Zwijnenburg, project leader at PAX, much of the damage to industrial and oil infrastructure has occurred in remote desert areas – Ukraine is very different. “In this case, we’re really looking for industrial sites that are being targeted near populated areas,” he said.

The long-term health and environmental risks of such incidents are site-specific and “impossible to assess without detailed on-site investigation,” said Doug Weir, research and policy director at the Conflict and Environment Observatory. Because of this, tracking claims is crucial, he added.

Ukraine bears the legacy of Soviet-led industrialization, which both massively expanded its nuclear production and sought to exploit the vast reserves of coal, iron, titanium and other ores beneath its soil. There are also chemical, manufacturing and metallurgical plants, many residential areas that if unleashed could render entire neighborhoods unlivable for decades.

There are 4,000 dangerous sites in the eastern Donbass region alone, according to an unpublished report commissioned by the British Embassy in Kyiv and shared with POLITICO. As of 2019, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe reported 465 tailings storage facilities across Ukraine storing over 6 billion tons of waste from various industries.

There are fears that the Kremlin could target these civilian sites to wipe out Ukraine’s industrial base and undermine morale. A US Department of Defense official warned On Thursday, the Russians “showed a willingness to intentionally hit civilian infrastructure.”

“At this point you can clearly see that there is a lot of potential for the damage to escalate,” Weir said.

As well as being Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv is also an industrial hub, Zwijnenburg said, with a vast chemical industry producing fertilizers and plastics, lumber mills, cement and manufacturing. If hospitals are hit, medical waste could leak, as happened in Syria.

Watchdogs, including PAX, have been scrambling to map vulnerable locations across the country this week, but Zwijnenburg said one of the main online tools they use, Wikimapia, has been hit by attacks “probably by Russian hackers”.

If any of Ukraine’s seven hydroelectric power stations were hit, huge areas beneath the dams could be flooded. The movement of troops and heavy military hardware can also have long-term effects damage on protected areas and species.

Then there is the risk of neglect.

In the Donbass region, four years ago, Kremlin-backed separatists stopped pumping water from the Yunkom mine — the site of a 1979 experimental nuclear explosion. Space analysis firm Terra Motion calculated that rising radioactive water could reach the surface in just over a year.

“This has the potential to render large parts of the region uninhabitable and spill toxic waste into rivers and groundwater,” said David Gee, Terra Motion’s chief technical officer, which may spill into the Sea of ​​Azov, which connects to the Black Sea. Terra Motion warns that there are at least three other mines with the same profile in the area.

A prolonged war could also ruin Ukraine’s environmental policies, meaning important things like overseeing, maintaining and initiating conservation and restoration projects aren’t happening because they’re not a priority, Weir said.

More than 100 NGOs have a Call at the annual UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, which called on states to fund surveillance and repair war damage.

In the early hours of Friday, Ukraine’s Zelenskyy asked his neighbors to be aware of the danger.

“Europeans, please wake up,” he said.

Additional reporting by Ben Lefebvre.

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