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The politics behind Ukraine’s alarming nuclear warnings

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Kyiv is grasping at every possible lever in its efforts to persuade the West that it too is threatened by Russia’s invasion — including repeated and at times exaggerated warnings of nuclear calamity for the rest of Europe.

Since the very first day of Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine, when Russian troops captured the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site in a firefight, the country’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his officials have warned of a repeat of the explosion that spread radioactive fallout across Europe.

“Our defenders are giving their lives so that the tragedy of 1986 will not be repeated,” Zelenskyy wrote that day. “This is a declaration of war against the whole of Europe.” 

Eight days later, Zelenskyy said a nighttime attack that damaged an administrative building at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, the Continent’s largest, “could have been the end of history for Ukraine and Europe.” 

On Wednesday, Ukraine’s nuclear utility Energoatom said a power cut at the still-decommissioning Chernobyl site meant cooling systems would be shut off and “release of radioactive substances into the environment will occur. The wind can transfer the radioactive cloud to other regions of Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and Europe.”

These declarations are part of a highly effective if — in the most recent Chernobyl case — alarmist Ukrainian media offensive to counter Russia’s barrage of missiles and false statements.

It is easy to see why Ukraine, frustrated by Europe’s continued purchases of Russian oil and refusal to implement a no-fly zone despite intense civilian bombing, reckons that it still needs to pile pressure on other Europeans to get their heads round the brutality of the Russian onslaught, and the dangers it poses. The problem is that the nuclear warnings have created a dilemma for Ukraine’s allies and nuclear safety authorities, and have triggered consternation from the image-conscious nuclear industry.

According to international and national nuclear authorities, Russia’s conduct is dangerous but Ukraine’s nuclear facilities do not pose an imminent Europe-wide threat. The situation is being treated with extreme seriousness but the design of modern nuclear facilities means most of the worst-case scenarios would lead to localized fallout — devastating for Ukraine but not a danger for wider Europe.

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Rafael Mariano Grossi has repeatedly expressed his concerns about nuclear safety as the conflict unfolds, but at no point has the organization warned of explicit and immediate danger outside Ukraine.

Germany’s Federal Office for Radiation Protection said Wednesday that based on the information available about the situation at Chernobyl there was “no risk of radiological effects in Germany.” Belgian, Finnish and Polish nuclear safety agencies put out similar statements.

In the most dramatic case of deliberate nuclear sabotage involving a massive explosion there is potential for unpredictable impacts that could affect other countries, said Lars van Dassen, executive director of the World Institute for Nuclear Security. “If there are bombs being thrown on nuclear reactors, then we have a new situation.”

With the Russian war effort increasingly frustrated, there are concerns from Western governments about the lengths to which Putin may go.

The Ukrainian government and nuclear utility Energoatom did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Information war

As Russian forces appear to commit ever-more flagrant war crimes, Western reluctance to risk a direct conflict with Moscow has prompted warnings from Kyiv that Putin’s aggression will not stop at Ukraine.

Zelenskyy’s nuclear warnings were “probably” designed to make that threat felt in the rest of Europe, said Clint Watts, a distinguished research fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and former U.S. counterterrorism officer. He said the Ukrainians were also likely trying to focus immediate attention on the danger of Russia’s conduct around the sensitive sites to try and avoid an accident.

It’s not the first time Ukraine has invoked Chernobyl to grab attention. In 2018 government officials warned of a “second Chernobyl” after Russian separatists ceased maintenance at a radioactive mine in the Donbas region.

“In a lot of newsrooms around the world, if the key word ‘nuclear’ is used it creates a shockwave for media reporting,” Watts said.

That has played out in the past two weeks, with headlines often responding to statements from Zelenskyy, his ministers or comments in three-times daily “war bulletins” sent to journalists. More sober assessments from the IAEA have often been less prominently placed.

That leaves Ukraine’s allies with a difficult pathway to chart between supporting the besieged government in Kyiv and giving the public a clear assessment of the danger they face.

The responses have varied. After the Zaporizhzhia attack, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson aligned with Zelenskyy, saying in a statement the act “could now directly threaten the safety of all of Europe.” 

“The world narrowly averted a nuclear catastrophe last night,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield told an emergency meeting of the 15-member Security Council later that day. 

Both statements dominated news headlines.

Zelenskyy has accused Moscow of engaging in “nuclear terrorism” through its deliberate and dangerous actions — a statement echoed by Baltic leaders Gitanas Nausėda of Lithuania and Kaja Kallas of Estonia.

While Russia is clearly the aggressor and may be using the nuclear sites to stir anxiety in the West, Ukraine’s authorities have played their part in fanning the public’s fear.

Europeans are clearly alarmed. Iodine tablets — which help protect the thyroid in the event of a nuclear incident — suddenly ran off the shelves in pharmacies in Belgium, France, Germany and across Nordic countries, prompting pharmaceutical associations and government agencies to issue warnings against taking them without official guidance.

Germany’s most famous weather presenter Jörg Kachelmann has taken to including forecasts of wind direction from Chernobyl in his reports.

Other Western politicians have restricted themselves to repeating (or retweeting) the IAEA’s ongoing assessments, which continue to assert the graveness of the situation but have not indicated a likely Europe-wide danger. Some, including French President Emmanuel Macron, said nuclear dangers should prompt an immediate ceasefire.

Russia’s Permanent Representative to the International Organizations in Vienna Mikhail Ulyanov said last week “nothing extraordinary is happening at Ukrainian nuclear facilities right now.” He added that “Russia, as a country with a developed nuclear industry, is fully aware of the potential risks and intends to do everything to ensure proper safety there.”

Risk assessment

Some allies have begun directly contradicting the Ukrainians. 

Shortly after this week’s warning from Energoatom about the power cut to Chernobyl, U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm tweeted a U.S. government analysis that “the loss of power does not pose a near-term risk of radiological release.”

Officials are also wary of downplaying risks in a fast moving, unpredictable conflict where information and motivations are hard to fully grasp. The instinct is to err on the side of extreme caution and even alarm when it comes to atomic power.

“If somebody sneezes in a French nuclear power plant there is a whole procedure in place and a scandal. And now we have a war in a country that houses the biggest nuclear power plant in Europe. So this by default is a very serious situation,” said an EU official.

Nuclear industry and safety experts have warned that accidents could happen as nuclear power plants are not designed to be operated in a war zone.

The nuclear industry, despite huge safety improvements in the interim, still suffers from the public perception of danger tied in part to the Chernobyl accident. Ukraine’s statements also put them in a difficult position.

“We need to be clear, as with everything, the notion of zero risk does not exist,” said Jessica Johnson, communication director at Foratom, a Brussels-based trade association for the nuclear energy industry in Europe. But she said the Ukrainian authorities “have decided to go out with a certain type of messaging, which may have exaggerated the situation.”

“We understand why they’ve done it … but we’re not sure that communicating in such a way is helpful in that in some countries, it may have caused a bit of unnecessary panic,” she said.

Zelenskyy “said things that do not make sense about the Chernobyl site itself because the reactors have been shut down for 20 years,” said Valérie Faudon, general delegate of the French Nuclear Energy Society. While the situation made it understandable, she said, “this is not very responsible,” noting that the risk of a pan-European accident at Chernobyl “is very low and it would be localized.”

What cannot be localized is the way public statements spread alarm and confusion. “It’s a technique that any side can use,” Watts said. “But then it starts to create so many false scenarios, where you can’t really wade through the noise to know what is the actual severity of what’s going on at all.”

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