Ukraine conflict environmental briefing
1. Nuclear sites and radiation risks
Published: July, 2022 · Categories: Publications, Ukraine
This is the first in a series of thematic briefings on the environmental consequences of the armed conflict in Ukraine, jointly prepared by the Conflict and Environment Observatory and Zoï Environment Network. This work is supported by the United Nations Environment Programme as part of its efforts to monitor the environmental situation in Ukraine, and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Ukraine has a highly developed infrastructure of sites and facilities linked to nuclear activities. The conflict has impacted them in numerous ways, with implications for public health and the environment, and has breached international norms protecting nuclear facilities during armed conflicts and in situations of occupation.
Overview and key themes
This is the first time that a war has been fought in a country with such a highly developed infrastructure of nuclear sites and facilities. While experts predicted particular sites might be placed at risk, the reality of what has, and has yet to transpire has challenged assumed norms governing nuclear generating sites in conflict, and the ability of the international community to respond.
Ukraine has four nuclear power plants (NPPs), housing 15 reactors which, prior to the conflict, met around 50% of domestic electricity needs. Beyond its active NPPs, it is home to the former Chornobyl plant as well as reactors and sub-critical assemblies designated for research.1 Other relevant sites include facilities for storing spent fuel and other radioactive waste, sites of historic underground nuclear explosions, uranium mining and reprocessing facilities, and a wide range of research, medical and industrial facilities that use radioactive sources.
Customary International Humanitarian Law has provisions for the protection of sites that contain “dangerous forces”, such as NPPs. However, while much of the focus is around direct strikes on parts of NPPs that are particularly dangerous, such as reactor vessels, monitoring has highlighted a wide range of unforeseen indirect risks that can ensue when sites are caught up in armed conflict.
These risks include not only the consequences of violent military takeover of former and current NPP facilities, but the subsequent instability when external electricity supplies to plants are disrupted. NPPs often house spent fuel and wastes, and damage or disruption to storage areas presents radiation risks. The use of heavy explosives in urban areas can damage civilian facilities that house nuclear materials, as has been seen in the sub-critical research facility in Kharkiv. And, when occupied by belligerent forces, compromises are made to the safe operation of NPPs and the welfare of staff, who are essentially taken hostage and forced to work under supervision of personnel from the occupying power. Finally, landscape fires of historically contaminated areas risk the resuspension and dispersal of radioactive materials.
This unprecedented set of factors highlighted the limited means available to the international community to respond to the nuclear risks created by the armed conflict. Stakeholders such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) struggled to respond to the occupation of Chornobyl, which ended on 31st March. The occupation of Zaporizhzhia NPP is ongoing and, as of mid-July, the IAEA has not yet been allowed access to assess the conditions of its workers. With six reactors, the Zaporizhzhia plant is the largest of its kind in Europe, and the IAEA has described the situation there as “untenable”.
|Key incidents at selected nuclear facilities, Feb – Jul 2022|
|Chornobyl NPP||Temporary occupation, extreme pressure on staff, interrupted power supply and data transfer to the IAEA Safeguards system, storage of ammunition, mining of the area, wildfires and looting.|
|Zaporizhzhia NPP||Shelling of buildings, ongoing occupation, extreme pressure on staff, interrupted power supply and data transfer to the IAEA Safeguards system, storage of ammunition, drone/loitering munition strikes on military targets at the site, placement of heavy weapons and mining of the area.|
|Neutron Source Nuclear Research Facility, Kharkiv||Repeated shelling, destruction of the building, interrupted power supply.|
|State Specialised Inter-oblast Enterprise, Kyiv||Site hit by explosive weapons.|
|South Ukrainian NPP||Cruise missiles passing at critically low altitude.|
Russia’s military occupation of nuclear sites has also drawn attention to the historically close relationship between its state nuclear company Rosatom, and Energoatom, which runs Ukraine’s NPPs. This has included both the supply of nuclear fuel and the export of the spent by-product. Surprisingly this relationship continued even after the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in the eastern Donbas region. In June of this year Ukraine signed a new contract with US firm Westinghouse to supply its nuclear fuel.
In spite of the increased risk experienced in recent months, Ukrainian government support for nuclear power remains strong; historically, ambitious targets for nuclear expansion have been part of Ukraine’s energy strategies since the 2000s. The June agreement between Westinghouse and Energoatom would see nine new AP1000 reactors built at existing sites, including two at Khmelnitska NPP.
Although Russia has several large calibre tank rounds in service that have depleted uranium cores, it is currently unclear if, or to what extent, depleted uranium ammunition has been used in the fighting in Ukraine. In the event that its use is confirmed, the most likely source of inhalational exposure to depleted uranium particulate will be through activities in and around damaged military vehicles.
Other potential radiological threats are present in the eastern Donbas region, such as the Yunkom coal mine, which was the site of a ‘peaceful nuclear explosion’ in 1979. The de facto authorities halted groundwater pumping at the mine in 2018, allowing it to flood. There is fear that contaminated water from the mine will ultimately reach the surface, subsequently polluting ground and surface water sources in the region with mobilised radionuclides. Other potential radioactive hazards include the Donetsk State Factory of Chemical Products, which stores military waste.
Case study: Russian military occupation of the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone (CEZ)
Late on 24th February, Russian troops entered and captured the site of the former-nuclear power plant at Chornobyl. This being the world’s first military occupation of a civilian nuclear plant, was also the site of the worst nuclear disaster in history. Military justification for the occupation appeared to be limited, although the site is on one of the shortest and most convenient routes between Belarus and Kyiv.
Concern raised from the occupation of Chornobyl initially focused on the integrity of the sarcophagus – a large concrete structure built as protection around the highly radioactive reactor core, which had melted during the disaster in 1986. Fortunately, the sarcophagus remains intact and there is no evidence of any significant radiation releases during the invasion and occupation of the site and surrounding exclusion zone.
During the occupation, nearby fighting disrupted power lines that fed the site and provided critical energy for spent nuclear fuel cooling ponds. As a result, back-up generators were used to maintain cooling, raising new concerns on the availability of diesel supplies. Power was temporarily restored to the site on the 13th March, before being lost again and not fully restored to the Centralised Spent Fuel Storage Facility until the 16th April.
At the outset of the occupation on the 24th and 25th of February, 39 of the 66 on-site radiation sensors recorded alarming spikes in gamma radiation. Initial analysis suggested that the source may be radioactive soil, resuspended by military activities. However, modelling subsequently showed this to be unrealistic, and further analysis indicates the readings were faulty, likely owing to wireless interference from military activities. A voluntary effort to reinstate limited monitoring around Chornobyl has been undertaken by Safecast and civil society partners.
Drone footage and satellite imagery indicate that Russian troops dug trenches near the Red Forest, which is adjacent to the Chornobyl site and an area known to have high levels of radiological contamination. A field assessment for Greenpeace Germany,2 published in July 2022, found levels to be several times higher in areas subject to disturbance by the Russian military than estimated by the IAEA. Yet, as the risk of external radiological exposure was comparatively low, it is unlikely to have caused the acute radiation syndrome reported by some media outlets. Nevertheless, inhalational exposure, in particular to the Americium and Plutonium isotopes found in the forest’s soil, may be assumed to have resulted in medically relevant doses. The extraordinary nature of the occupation, its questionable military justification and the risks involved fed a range of disinformation narratives, including ‘false flag’ theories, ‘radioactive flasks’, and a Russian propaganda counter-narrative.
Safety concerns have surfaced from widespread looting of the Chornobyl site and exclusion zone. Customised software required to operate the radiation monitoring network was lost, along with hundreds of computers, nearly all fire-fighting equipment, vehicles and radiation dosimeters; even radioactive samples and sources have reportedly been stolen. Serious concerns emerged regarding the conditions endured by the site’s workers: staff had to work under duress, facing “psychological pressure and moral exhaustion”, and were not relieved from their posts until 20th March. Meanwhile, their replacements in the nearby worker city of Slavutych were under siege, without food or power.
Ecology and science
Since 1986, ‘rewilding’ efforts have led to a significant increase in forest cover in the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone (CEZ).3 Indeed, the CEZ is part of the wider Polesia area, Europe’s largest remaining inland wetland, a biodiversity hotspot and vital carbon sink. The impact of fire and heavy military vehicle movements on these ecosystems is at present uncharacterised, but are likely to be significant. Polesia applied for UNESCO protected status at the beginning of February 2022. How the conflict will affect Polesia’s inscription, and UN-led peatland restoration projects in Belarus, remains an open question.
There has been significant fire activity in the CEZ since the 24th February. Military activities contributed to the spread of fires not only as the likely source of ignition, but the security situation restricted firefighters’ access to the burns. Although forest fires are often observed in the area, this year, in spite of unfavourable burning conditions, they had started much earlier than previously recorded, implying that the conflict may have led to their proliferation.
In recent years, springtime fires in the CEZ have become more frequent. While academic studies have assessed the resulting health risk posed by external doses from the resuspension of radionuclides to be low, the process of estimating health risks from internal exposures remains uncertain. Notably, overall fire activity in the CEZ has so far been lower in 2022 than in previous years. However, beyond radiation risks to health, wildfires have significant secondary effects. As elsewhere, fires lead to loss of wildlife and long-term habitat changes. Additionally, the removal of stabilising vegetation can result in increased soil erosion, allowing further resuspension and surface run-off of radionuclides. The presence of unexploded ordnance and newly placed land mines presents a potential source of future ignitions and can obstruct survey work and fire-fighting efforts.
The CEZ is home to the ‘natural laboratory’, a vital observation area that is recording the response of organisms as they reinhabit areas of high radiation. The conflict has unfortunately suspended all scientific projects and international collaborations, with equipment having been damaged or looted. Disruption to the management of the CEZ has also resulted from the military enlistment of staff previously designated to site maintenance.
Immediate and future needs
In the interests of domestic and regional environmental and public health protection, all parties involved in the conflict must take precautions to avoid further damage or operational disruption to nuclear facilities. Site-specific and other priority measures include:
i) Zaporizhzhia NPP
Military occupation of the Zaporizhzhia NPP must end and the site peacefully transferred to the responsible Ukrainian authorities. It is crucial that independent inspectors gain access to the facilities and that the site and surrounding area be demilitarised, this must include both the removal of heavy weapon systems and land mines.
ii) Chornobyl Exclusion Zone
There is an urgent need to repair and restore the physical infrastructure and reinstate the personnel necessary for safety in the CEZ, ensuring that measures are in place to respond to any further interruptions linked to the armed conflict. The survey and clearance of land mines and unexploded ordnance will be a prerequisite for efforts to assess the extent of any localised or landscape level ecological impacts linked to the occupation of the CEZ.
iii) International nuclear safety norms
The ongoing occupation and disruption of nuclear sites demonstrate the importance of robust and effective international protocols, procedures and risk assessments for nuclear facilities affected by armed conflicts. In light of the extraordinary threats to nuclear sites experienced, it is imperative that measures are put in place to reduce risks in future conflicts and strengthen international norms governing the protection of such sites.
iv) Documenting radiation hazards linked to the conflict
As identified in this briefing, Ukraine has a wide range of facilities that use or house radioactive materials. It is essential that these sites are documented and the potential presence of radioactive materials be integrated into risk analysis procedures and environmental assessments; including, but not limited to, clarification on the use of depleted uranium munitions.
Media enquiries: eoghan(at)ceobs.org or nickolai.denisov(at)zoinet.org
Research and content by CEOBS and Zoï Environment Network.
Additional contributors: Natalia Gozak and Kostiantyn Krynytskyi, Ecoaction; Tatiana Kasperski, Pompeu Fabra University, Barcelona; Dmytro Averin, Zoï Environment Network, Irpen.
Cartography and graphics: Matthias Beilstein, Zoï Environment Network, Schaffhausen.
- Ukraine has two research reactors: WWR-M (total capacity of 10 MW), Kyiv Nuclear Research Institute of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, and IR-100 (total capacity of 200 kW), Sevastopol National University of Nuclear Energy and Industry. The latter has been under Russian occupation since 2014. It also has two sub-critical assemblies located in Kharkiv and Sevastopol.
- Greenpeace Germany’s consultant’s report on military activities at the site is available here, a story map on their investigation is here.
- The fenced off Chornobyl Exclusion Zone was established following the 1986 disaster. Living or long-term stay is forbidden because of the residual contamination. The Exclusion Zone covers 2,044 km2 and consists of 76 abandoned towns and villages. The exclusion of humans has benefitted wildlife and the zone has become a focus for studying rewilding in recent years.