A former U.S. government policy analyst is warning a military conflict in Ukraine could affect the electric grid and endanger the nation's nuclear reactors.
Ukraine operates 15 atomic energy reactors at four different locations. Those nuclear sites rely on outside electricity to maintain their cooling pumps, which prevent a reactor meltdown from occurring.
In the event that Russia attacks Ukraine, "fighting could disrupt" the nearby power plants or electrical grids that send electricity to the reactors, wrote Bennett Ramberg in a commentary appearing in the Daily Star newspaper on Wednesday.
Without electricity to operate the reactors' cooling systems, there is a risk of nuclear meltdown occurring, as was the case in the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi power plant crisis in Japan.
Nuclear power sites maintain emergency backup electricity generators. However, they rely on diesel fuel to operate, which is typically trucked in from outside.
Fighting between Ukrainian and Russian-backed forces could prevent diesel-fuel shipments from reaching the generators, which would shorten the amount of time they could provide auxiliary power to the reactor cooling pumps, said Ramberg, who served at the State Department during the George H.W. Bush administration.
There is also the chance that reactor personnel might flee their stations if armed conflict flares close to the sites, he pointed out. Additionally, "combatants could invade nuclear plants and threaten sabotage by releasing radioactive elements to intimidate opponents," Ramberg said.
In any of these scenarios, "serious radiological contamination" could occur that might even dwarf the harm caused at Fukushima and Chernobyl, Ramberg contended.
"Wartime conditions would prevent emergency crews from getting to an affected plant to contain radiological releases" and "civilians attempting to escape radioactive contamination would not know what to do" in the event of an interruption in government services, he said.
Moscow last month annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and is widely suspected to be behind pro-Russian militant activity elsewhere in the eastern part of the country.
Ramberg recommended that personnel at Ukrainian nuclear sites build up supplies of diesel fuel and perform extra checks on their backup generators to confirm they are in good working order.