Russian invasion taking its toll on Ukrainian nuclear workers
The events of the past 12 days are unprecedented and nerve-wracking for the nuclear community. Never before has a nuclear power plant been in a full-scale war zone until the Russian invasion of Ukraine started on February 24. The world watched nervously as Russian troops and heavy equipment rolled through the Chernobyl site and then a week later attacked the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. Russian forces are now less than 50 kilometers from the South Ukraine nuclear power plant.
On Monday, Energoatom, which operates Ukraine’s four nuclear power plants, released a statement about Russian propaganda, the Ukrainian Nuclear Society (UKRNS) issued a plea to the international nuclear community to support the Ukrainian nuclear workers, and the BBC published a story on the unbelievably difficult conditions for the workers at the Chernobyl site.
Energoatom statement: The Energoatom statement released on its Telegram channel claims that the Russians will be running propaganda and false information regarding its recent capture of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant very soon. The statement says that 14 journalists have been brought in by Russia, with plans to publish misinformation about the Russian occupation of the plant.
Energoatom stated that there are 400 Russian soldiers in the vicinity of the plant and that all the work by the Ukrainian staff must first be approved by the Russian military. Multiple news outlets have reported that communications from the power plant to the outside world have been cut off, hampering the information flow between the plant staff, Energoatom, and the IAEA.
The statement from Energoatom ended with a reassuring update: “Currently, the radiation background at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and adjacent territories is normal.” It added, however, that the situation could change at any moment, “due to the invaders' violation of nuclear and radiation safety requirements.”
Nuclear workers under stress: Nearly two weeks of conflict between Russia and Ukraine is stretching the Ukrainian nuclear professionals to a breaking point. The UKRNS issued an appeal to nuclear professionals around the world to help the Ukrainian nuclear community, stating, “The Russian troops, on the orders of their country's leadership, are seizing nuclear power facilities. This situation can lead to unpredictable and catastrophic consequences for millions of people.”
The UKRNS added, “Nuclear power plant personnel are in a state of stress,” and asked for the following from the international community:
•“We appeal to the embassies of all countries of the world, including those with nuclear energy facilities, to express their strong position to prevent such actions in the civilized world.”
•“We appeal to the nuclear community of the countries that have nuclear energy facilities to take all necessary actions and measures to persuade the leadership of these states to take all possible and real actions to de-escalate in the area of nuclear facilities.”
•“We appeal to all adequate and able-bodied workers of the Russian nuclear industry (we sincerely hope that they still remain and are not blinded by the Kremlin's propaganda) to express their position and prevent unpredictable terrible consequences.”
Chernobyl workers: The BBC published a story on Monday saying that more than 100 Ukrainian workers and 200 Ukrainian guards are trapped at the Chernobyl nuclear site on the Ukrainian boarder with Belarus. “Workers continue to go about their duties, and the atmosphere is said to be calm, but the BBC has been told that the conditions inside are difficult, with food and medicine limited,” the BBC said. “There are also growing concerns that stress could be impacting their ability to safely carry out their duties at the nuclear site.” The BBC goes on to say that employees who were at the Chernobyl site when Russia invaded are now forced to live on-site, closed off from their families and basic needs.
The conditions described in the BBC article are harrowing, but the risk of a nuclear catastrophe at Chernobyl is low because the reactors were shut down years ago. However, the treatment of the site staff is not a good precedent for the other Ukrainian nuclear sites. It is worrying to the international community that similar treatment of Ukrainian nuclear workers could result in a major catastrophe—although different from the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.
IAEA safe zones: The American Nuclear Society supports the establishment of “safe zones” around Ukraine's nuclear power plants and endorses the International Atomic Energy Agency’s "seven pillars" framework for all combatants to abide by in safeguarding nuclear facilities and staff.
In his address to the IAEA board of governors on March 2 regarding the situation in Ukraine, IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi stated, “I urgently and strongly appeal to all parties to refrain from any military or other action that could threaten the safety and security of these facilities.”
An op-ed by James L. Regens and Eugene A. Hughes, published in the Wall Street Journal on March 6, states, “Russia, a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency, is a party to multiple agreements that any armed attack against nuclear facilities devoted to peaceful purposes violates the United Nations Charter, the Geneva Conventions, and the IAEA Statute. . . . Mr. Putin is attacking not only Ukraine, but the international order that protects the peaceful use of nuclear power. Securing Ukraine’s nuclear power plants and radioactive material is urgent."