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Ukraine’s nuclear nightmare is only part of the war’s environmental horrors

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Russia’s attack on Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant spread nuclear anxiety across the Continent.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy sent a warning early Friday “to all Ukrainians, to all Europeans, to all people who know the word Chernobyl.”

It’s just one of the environmental disasters that may be unleashed by Moscow’s decision to wage war in a heavily industrialized country.

“We already seeing a massive, ecologically disastrous attack from Russia,” Olexiy Angurets, the head of Ukrainian environmental NGO Zylenyi Svit, told POLITICO in a call from the city of Dnipro as he prepared to take part in its defense.

By sunrise, according to Ukrainian authorities, the fire at Zaporizhzhia was contained and Russian forces had taken control of the largest nuclear facility in Europe, which supplies a quarter of Ukraine’s power. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said essential equipment had not been damaged. Ukraine’s nuclear regulator said staff continued to work.

On Friday morning, IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said there had been no release of radioactive material but the situation continued “to be very tense and challenging.”

Analysts argued that a repeat of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster was unlikely as Zaporizhzhia uses different cooling technology. There is a “very limited risk” of radioactive release even if a missile were to hit the plant, said Leon Cizelj, president of the European Nuclear Society, and it would take a deliberate barrage to breach the concrete shell. Even then “the effect will be limited to 10, 20 kilometers.”

Lars van Dassen, executive director of the World Institute for Nuclear Security, said: “Yes, something can go wrong, but not as wrong as Chernobyl.”

Russia’s war in Ukraine is “distinctive,” said Richard Pearshouse, head of the Human Rights Watch environment division. Because of the presence of hundreds of chemical, metallurgical and mining sites, atomic energy plants and nuclear waste dumps, “the risks are enormous.”

Ukraine has the seventh-largest installed nuclear capacity in the world and the second in Europe, after France. Grossi said this week that the “ongoing military conflict taking place in a country that has a vast nuclear program” had put the organization on high alert. Ukraine’s nuclear safety regulator has asked the IAEA for help to guarantee the safety of the plants.

James Acton, co-director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said nuclear plants “are not designed for war zones” and warned that “much of the fuel in these other reactors is substantially more radioactive than the fuel at Chernobyl.”

Two low-level nuclear waste storage facilities in Kyiv and Kharkiv have already been hit, according to the IAEA. “These two incidents highlight the very real risk that facilities with radioactive material will suffer damage during the conflict, with potentially severe consequences for human health and the environment,” said Grossi.

Chernobyl again

Zelenskyy’s warning about a repeat of Chernobyl came days after Russian troops fought their way into the real Chernobyl. The battle caused radiation levels to rise, but authorities said that even the worst-case scenario would not see contamination breach the 30-kilometer exclusion zone around the site.

On Thursday, Ukraine informed the IAEA that workers at Chernobyl were facing “psychological pressure and moral exhaustion,” Grossi said, stressing the need for staff to rest and rotate for safety reasons.

“They are the ones that are the walls between surviving and a potential catastrophe,” said van Dassen.

In wars, the immediate suffering of civilians, the fight for survival or the attainment of military objectives overwhelm other concerns. But amid the bomb-now-pay-later chaos, Pearshouse warned “environmental crises can add to the humanitarian crises and … those effects often linger longer, after the guns have gone silent.”

In the past, Russia has resisted U.N. attempts to set norms for the protection of the environment in times of war.

While radiation dangers grabbed public attention, other industrial sites also have the capacity to cause enormous damage. 

Massive fires are already burning at oil depots and munitions dumps. Analysis by Dutch peace NGO PAX, shared exclusively with POLITICO, used social media and satellite photography to identify more than two dozen sites where environmentally damaging spills, explosions or fires were taking place. They included power stations, chemical warehouses and power plants.

In recent wars in the Middle East, said Wim Zwijnenburg, project leader at PAX, much of the damage to industrial and oil infrastructure was in remote desert areas — Ukraine is very different. “In this case we are really looking at industrial sites being targeted near populated areas,” he said. 

The long-term health and ecological risks of such incidents are site-specific and “impossible to gauge without detailed research on the ground post-conflict,” said Doug Weir, research and policy director at the Conflict and Environment Observatory. That’s why tracking damage is crucial, he added. 

Ukraine carries the legacy of a Soviet-led industrialization that massively expanded both its nuclear output and sought to exploit the vast stores of coal, iron, titanium and other ores beneath its soil. There are also chemical, manufacturing and metallurgical plants, many housing dangers that if unleashed could make whole districts unliveable for decades.

In the eastern Donbas region alone there are 4,000 hazardous sites, according to an unpublished report commissioned by the U.K. embassy in Kyiv and shared with POLITICO. As of 2019, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe reported 465 tailings storage facilities across Ukraine, holding over 6 billion tons of waste from various industries.

There’s fear that the Kremlin may deliberately target these civilian sites to wipe out Ukraine’s industrial base and undermine morale. A U.S. Department of Defense official warned Thursday the Russians “have shown a willingness to hit civilian infrastructure on purpose.”

“At that point, then you can clearly see there’s a lot of potential for escalating damage,” said Weir. 

As well as being Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv is also an industrial hub, Zwijnenburg said, with a huge chemical industry producing fertilizers and plastics, lumber milling, cement and manufacturing. If hospitals are hit, that could produce leaks of medical waste, as happened in Syria.

Watchdogs, including PAX, have been scrambling to map at-risk sites across the country this week, but Zwijnenburg said one of the main online tools they use, Wikimapia, had been hit by attacks “probably by Russian hackers.”

If one of Ukraine’s seven hydropower plants were to get hit, that could flood huge areas below the dams. The movement of troops and heavy military equipment can also wreak long-term damage to protected areas and species.

Then there is the danger of neglect.

In the Donbas region, Kremlin-backed separatists stopped pumping water four years ago from the Yunkom mine — the site of a 1979 experimental nuclear explosion. Spatial analysis company Terra Motion calculated that rising, radioactive water might reach the surface in a little over a year. 

“This has the potential to render large parts of the region uninhabitable, spilling toxic waste into rivers and groundwater,” said Terra Motion Chief Technical Officer David Gee, potentially spilling into the Sea of Azov that’s linked to the Black Sea. Terra Motion warns there are at least three other mines in the area with the same profile.

A sustained war could also wreck Ukraine’s environmental governance, meaning important things, such as monitoring, maintaining and launching nature conservation and restoration projects, don’t happen because they are not a priority, said Weir.

More than 100 NGOs issued a call at the annual U.N. Environment Assembly in Nairobi asking states to fund monitoring and clean up war damage.

In the early hours of Friday morning, Ukraine’s Zelenskyy was pleading for his neighbors to pay attention to the danger.

“Europeans, wake up please,” he said.

Additional reporting by Ben Lefebvre.

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