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Playing with fire at Chornobyl — Beyond Nuclear International

Will we avoid a deadly sequel?

Playing with fire at Chornobyl — Beyond Nuclear International

After 36 years the nuclear site is again in danger

By Linda Pentz Gunter

For 36 years things had been quiet at Chornobyl. Not uneventful. Not safe. But no one was warning of “another Chornobyl” until Russian forces took over the site on February 24 of this year.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine first took their troops through the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone, where they rolled armored vehicles across radioactive terrain, also trampled by foot soldiers who kicked up radioactive dust, raising the radiation levels in the area.

As the Russians arrived at the Chornobyl nuclear site, it quickly became apparent that their troops were unprotected against radiation exposure and indeed many were even unaware of where they were or what Chornobyl represented. We later learned that they had dug trenches in the highly radioactive Red Forest, and even camped there.

After just over a month, the Russians pulled out. Was this to re-direct troops to now more strategically desirable — or possibly more reasonably achievable — targets? Or was it because, as press reports suggested, their troops were falling ill in significant numbers, showing signs of radiation sickness? Those troops were whisked away to Belarus and the Russians aren’t talking. But rumors persist that at least one soldier has already succumbed to his exposure.

Plant workers at the nuclear site, despite working as virtual hostages during the Russian occupation and in a state of perpetual anxiety, where shocked that even the Russian radiation experts subsequently sent in, were, like the young soldiers, using no protective equipment. It was, said one, a kind of suicide mission.

What could have happened at Chornobyl — and still could, given the war is by no means over and the outcome still uncertain — could have seen history repeat itself, almost 36 years to the day of that first April 26, 1986 disaster.

Yet, Chornobyl has no operating reactors. So why is it still a risk? Doesn’t the so-called New Safe Confinement (NSC) structure protect the site?

The $2.3 billion NSC was built to cover over the original and crumbling old sarcophagus that had encased the lethal cargo left behind after the April 26, 1986 explosion of Unit 4.

Supposed to last just 100 years, that still inadequate timeframe was thrown into jeopardy as a reported firefight broke out prior to the Russian takeover. Fears arose that the shocks and vibrations of repeated shelling and artillery fire could cause the NSC to crack or crumble.

Housed inside the NSC is the destroyed Unit 4 as well as 200 metric tonnes of uranium, plutonium, irradiated dust, solid and liquid fuel, and a molten slurry of uranium fuel rods, zirconium cladding, graphite control rods, and melted sand. 

The fuel lump from Unit 4, sitting inaccessible on a basement floor, remains unstable. In May 2021, there was a sudden and baffling escalation of activity there and a rise in neutrons, evoking fears of a chain reaction or even another explosion.

All of these volatile fuels and waste inventories still depend on cooling pumps to keep them cool. And those cooling pumps depend on power.

However, not everything at the site is within the NSC.

Units 1, 2 and 3 are not yet fully decommissioned and likely won’t be until at least 2064. Even though their fuel has been cooling for 20 years, it cannot go indefinitely without power. And managing it necessitates skilled, and unharried, personnel. 

Loss of power threatens the ISF-1 spent nuclear fuel pool where much of the waste fuel is still stored. As nuclear engineer, Dave Lochbaum, described it in an email, “If forced cooling is lost, the decay heat will warm the water until it boils or until the heat dissipated by convective and conduction allows equilibrium to be established at a higher, but not boiling, point.

“If the pool boils, the spent fuel remains sufficiently cooled until the water level drops below the top of the fuel assemblies.”

At that point, however, adds Union of Concerned Scientists physicist, Ed Lyman, “a serious condition in the ISF-1 spent nuclear fuel pool” could occur. “However, because the spent fuel has cooled for a couple of decades there would be many days to intervene before the spent fuel was exposed.”

At the time of the invasion, workers at the site had been engaged in moving the full radioactive waste inventory from all 4 of the Chornobyl reactors, from the common fuel pool to the ISF-2 facility where it will be dismantled and put into long-term storage casks. It is unclear whether this operation was halted, but likely so.

Fire also remains a significant risk at the site. The massive 2020 wildfire that reached the perimeter of the Chornobyl plant site, occurred in April, well before the dry season. Military combat clearly invites the risk of igniting a lethal fire. 

Indeed, the entire region, known as the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone, is a tinderbox. As Dr. Tim Mousseau and his research team discovered, dead wood and leaf litter on the forest floors is not decaying properly, likely because the microbes and other organisms that drive the process of decay are reduced or gone due to their own prolonged exposure to radiation.

As leaf litter and organic matter build up, the risk of ignition increases. There have been several hundred fires in the Zone already, sometimes, incomprehensibly, deliberately started. The explosions of war fighting could spark another. Indeed, stories did emerge about fires during the Russian occupation, their origin unclear.

But even without military attacks or destruction of the site, it was still at risk, especially when offsite power was lost, twice, raising fears of a potential catastrophe if emergency on-site power — consisting of diesel generators — did not work or ran out of fuel. Later reports revealed that plant workers had taken to stealing Russian fuel to keep those generators running.

Meanwhile, the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine (SNRIU) had lost complete contact with its Chornobyl workforce. As days dragged into weeks, the SNRIU legitimately worried that an exhausted workforce, going without shift changes and operating under duress and potentially fear, could lead to mistakes that could prove deadly.

It was, after all, human error that had contributed to the first Chornobyl catastrophe.

On March 17, the SNRIU reported, “There is no information on the real situation at the Chornobyl NPP site, as there is no contact with the NPP personnel present directly at the site for the 22nd day in a row without rotation.”

Radiation monitors had remained off since the Russian occupation, leaving authorities and the public in the dark should there be any significant release of radioactivity as a result of damage at the site inflicted by military conflict or other causes.

Repeating a warning that had become a daily one on the SNRIU website, the agency concluded: “Given the psychological, moral, and physical fatigue of the personnel, as well as the absence of day-time and repair staff, maintenance and repair activities of equipment important to the safety of the facilities at the Chornobyl NPP site are not carried out, which may lead to the reduction of its reliability, which in turn can lead to equipment failures, emergencies, and accidents.”

Finally, a month into the occupation, a partial shift change was allowed. Workers could go home and rest. But almost immediately, the Russians attacked the nearby worker town of Slavutych, terrorizing the workforce and leaving at least three dead according to press reports.

Some personnel, including security guards, chose to stay on at the site. With good reason, they perhaps feared that the Russian occupying force would behave irresponsibly at a site that houses lethal cargos.

Sure enough, on March 24 stories emerged that Russian forces at Chornobyl may have “looted and destroyed a laboratory near the abandoned Chernobyl nuclear power plant that was used to monitor radioactive waste,” according to CNN and other news sources. 

The laboratory, which conducts research into radioactive waste management, houses radioactive materials that may then have fallen into Russian hands.

The State Agency of Ukraine for Exclusion Zone Management, which announced the attack, went further in wishing “the enemy today…will harm himself, not the civilized world.”

And now here we are, just days away from the 36th commemoration of that terrible day in 1986. Still watching. Still waiting. Still holding our breath. The war is neither over, nor won by either side. The Chornobyl site, possibly now more radioactive than in the immediate past, sits like a ticking time bomb. Along with too many unanswered — and unanswerable — questions. 

Who will protect it? Will it be spared further assault? And will the word Chornobyl come to mark a new nuclear catastrophe 36 years after the first?


April 25, 2022 Posted by | Reference, safety | 2 Comments

Over a third of the world’s uranium is supplied by Russian-owned sources

 The European nuclear power sector is highly dependent on imports of
Russian uranium, according to a report by NGOs Friends of the Earth Germany
(BUND), the Nuclear Free Future Foundation, the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation,
Greenpeace and Ausgestrahlt.

In 2020, EU countries received 20.2 percent of
their uranium needs from Russia and another 19.1 percent came from Russian
ally Kazakhstan, according to the report. The dependency on Russian uranium
is highest in Eastern Europe, where 18 nuclear power plants are calibrated
to use the hexagonal fuel elements provided by Rosatom.

This Russian statecorporation also has shares in uranium mines in Canada, the USA and above
all Kazakhstan, making it the second largest uranium producer in the world,
the report states. More than a third of the global demand for enriched
uranium, which is needed for the operation of nuclear power plants, comes
from the Russian company. According to German nuclear power plant operator
PreussenElektra, Germany’s three remaining reactors are also mainly
running on Russian and Kazakh uranium. 

Clean Energy Wire 22nd April 2022

April 25, 2022 Posted by | business and costs, politics international, Russia | Leave a comment

Take uranium contamination off our land, Navajos urge federal nuclear officials

By Marjorie Childress, New Mexico In Depth | April 23, 202

The gale-force winds that swept across New Mexico on Friday, driving fires and evacuations, gave Diné residents in a small western New Mexico community an opportunity to demonstrate first hand the danger they live with every day.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) members were in the Red Water Pond Road community, about 20 minutes northeast of Gallup, to hear local input on a controversial plan to clean up a nearby abandoned uranium mine. It was the first visit anyone could recall by NRC commissioners to the Navajo Nation, where the agency regulates four uranium mills. Chairman Christopher Hanson called the visit historic, and the significance was visible with Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and other Navajo officials in attendance.

As commissioners listened to 20 or so people give testimony over several hours Friday afternoon, high winds battered the plastic sheeting hung on the sides of the Cha’a’oh, or shade house, making it hard for some in the audience of many dozens to hear all that was said.  “This is like this everyday,” community member Annie Benally told commissioners, mentioning the dust being whipped around outside by the wind. “They say it’s clean, it’s ok. But we have more piles back there and you see it blowing this way.”

Benally was referring to piles of contaminated radioactive soil and debris at two adjacent abandoned uranium mines. One mine is near enough to the shade house that its gate is visible. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wants to move some of that waste to a mill site regulated by the NRC, where contaminated groundwater is still being cleaned up. To drive north of Church Rock to the Red Water Pond Road community is to appreciate how close that mill site is to the surrounding community. It sits one mile south of the shade house, on private land but right next to a highway driven every day by local residents.

After Friday afternoon’s listening session, the federal commissioners conducted a public meeting in Gallup in the evening where they heard from EPA officials. The NRC is expected to decide in June whether or not to permit the EPA to move the mine debris to the mill.

The swirling dust outside was a consistent theme during the Friday afternoon session as residents described a generational struggle with significant health risks from uranium contamination. 

…………………………….. The multiple hours of testimony concluded with remarks by Nez, who put a point on the message residents were sending: the mining waste should be moved completely outside of their community. 

“This is what the Navajo people live with, just imagine 500 open uranium mines on a windy day,” Nez said. “…the Navajo people in this area have lived with this for a very long time, so we plead with you, I plead with you, let’s get this waste, and get it way far away from the Navajo Nation.” 

The EPA cleanup plan wouldn’t move the contamination far, though, just to the nearby mill site. At the public meeting Friday evening, NRC commissioner Jeff Baran asked San Francisco-based EPA Region 9 Superfund and Emergency Management Director Michael Montgomery whether there are other disposal locations outside Indian country but still reasonably close.

Montgomery said current law only allows the EPA to go so far. It can’t site or create facilities for disposal, or ask a private party to do it either, he said. The agency is working to identify locations on federal land for other mine cleanups, Montgomery said, but for the Church Rock area there are no easy solutions for taking the waste out of Indian country.  Should the NRC not approve the current plan, the agency would be at an “impasse” that would take years to move beyond, he said. 

Montgomery suggested that Navajo aspirations to remove all uranium mine waste from their land would be difficult to achieve by the EPA alone. “If the solution for all the mines is to take all the waste off of tribal land, it’s going to require a dialogue that’s possibly outside our authority,” he said. 

Montgomery’s answers seemed to confound Baran. “Would EPA proceed with the mill site option if the community it is meant to benefit opposes it?” he asked. 

“There are a lot of perspectives within the community,” Montgomery said. “You can’t always get everyone to agree.” 

Nez challenged those remarks later in the meeting after Baran asked him if he wanted to respond to any of Montgomery’s comments. 

“I’ve heard a hundred percent of my Navajo relatives there say they didn’t want the waste. So I’m just wondering who are these individuals who can’t agree?” he asked.

April 25, 2022 Posted by | indigenous issues, opposition to nuclear, USA | Leave a comment

Olaf Scholz cites risk of nuclear war in refusal to send tanks to Ukraine

Politico, BY LAURENZ GEHRKE.April 22, 2022

Chancellor pushes back against demands from Kyiv and coalition partners.  Asked what made him sure that sending German tanks to Ukraine would trigger a catastrophic reaction from Russian President Vladimir Putin, Scholz argued that “there is no textbook for this situation where you can read at what point we are perceived as a belligerent.”

“That’s why I’m not squinting at poll numbers or letting myself be irritated by shrill calls,” the chancellor added in an obvious reference to the growing criticism of his stance at home and abroad. “The consequences of a mistake would be dramatic,” he said.

The Ukrainian government has called on Western allies to urgently send large amounts of heavy weaponry to help in the fight against Russia’s invasion, which has now entered a new phase focused on the east of the country…………

Echoing remarks by Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht, Scholz said that instead of Berlin directly supplying heavy weaponry, several Eastern European NATO partners would deliver weapons from Soviet-designed stocks that “can be deployed without lengthy training, without further logistics, and without soldiers from our countries.”

Germany would then “gradually fill the gaps created by these deliveries … as just discussed in the case of Slovenia,” he said.

April 25, 2022 Posted by | Germany, politics international, weapons and war | Leave a comment

French election: Macron and Le Pen’s nuclear plans torn apart: ‘Waste of time AND money’

FRENCH presidential hopefuls Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen have unveiled ambitious plans to boost France’s nuclear power capacity – already at 70 percent of its domestic electricity generation – but experts have questioned the feasibility.

By IAN RANDALL, , Apr 24, 2022  

The recent emphasis on large-scale nuclear reactors is, at least superficially, seemingly at odds with President Macron’s announcement late last year that France would be investing in so-called small modular reactor designs as part of his “France 2020” roadmap.

………………   Of the strategy’s allocated €30billion (£25.2billion) budget, €8billion (£6.7 billion) is to be apportioned towards the development of hydrogen power, compared with just €1billion (£0.8billion) towards small-scale reactor concepts.

Despite this funding disparity, however, Mr Macron asserted that the realisation of the small modular reactors was in fact “goal number one”…………………………….

April 25, 2022 Posted by | France, politics | Leave a comment

Hibakusha renews call for nuclear abolition

Hibakusha renews call for nuclear abolition,

Concerns about the possibility of nuclear warfare are growing as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine drags on.

A Japanese hibakusha, an atomic bomb survivor, shared her experiences in a virtual event organized by a group of university students in Tokyo on Sunday.

Wada Masako was one year old when an atomic bomb was detonated by the US Army over Nagasaki in 1945.

She was too young to remember that day, but her mother often told her what it was like to walk through the city in the bombing’s aftermath.

Wada said, “my mother told me people were stumbling around, their hair caked with blood. She said their clothes were in tatters, and one couldn’t tell whether they were men or women.”
She has been involved in the nuclear abolition movement for much of her life. She participated in rallies in New York City to support the adoption of the UN nuclear ban treaty.

Wada says she was shocked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and President Vladimir Putin’s recent threats to use nuclear weapons.

She said, “I’m worried there may soon be new hibakusha. I want everyone to know that what we have right now is a crisis. I want to tell them what happens when nuclear weapons are used.”

Wada said she hopes for real progress toward abolition at the first meeting of the parties to the nuclear ban treaty this June. She believes the advocacy of young people from Japan and around the world will only strengthen the movement.
She also urged the Japanese government to participate in the conference, and take an active role in the abolition movement. Japan has refused to join the ban treaty as it is under the US nuclear umbrella.

April 25, 2022 Posted by | Japan, weapons and war | Leave a comment