Ukraine Fighting Could Lead to Reactor Meltdown: U.S. Analyst

Armed men wearing military fatigues on Wednesday gather near armored vehicles as they guard a regional state building seized by pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Ukrainian city of Slavyansk. A former U.S. government analyst said a broader Russian invasion of Ukraine could disrupt operations at nuclear reactors.
National Journal
Rachel Oswald
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Rachel Oswald
April 16, 2014, 10:06 a.m.

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.

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