By Aurora Weiss
VIENNA. 18 August 2023 (IDN) — The International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) has called on member states of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to condemn any attacks on nuclear facilities, including reactors unequivocally, spent fuel storage facilities and other critical infrastructure or personnel.
Nuclear power plants should not be allowed to be used as storage facilities for heavy weapons or as bases for military personnel. Member states should also be required, on a mandatory basis, to agree to protect all structures, systems, and components essential to the safe operation of nuclear power plants.
“Any nuclear meltdown, whether caused by military activities or due to technical safety deficiencies in peacetime, would result in severe permanent damage to the environment and human health, in some cases with fatal consequences,” said Angelika Claussen, MD, European Vice of IPPNW, presenting the organization’s report on the possible effects of a nuclear meltdown in Zaporizhzhia, at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Preparatory Commission (NPT PrepCom), which concluded in Vienna on 11 August.
Dr. Nikolaus Müllner from the Institute for Safety and Risk Sciences (University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences, Vienna) emphasized that the dispersion calculations had shown that drastic measures such as the establishment of an exclusion zone would most likely be limited to the area around the nuclear power plant. However, the probability for a large part of Europe to be affected by other measures, e.g., restrictions in agricultural use, are not negligible.
“Adequate disaster management during wartime is not possible. One should recall that Russian troops set fire to administrative buildings and the main transformer of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant as early as 2022 and prohibited firefighters from entering the plant,” stressed Müllner.
Currently, Russia and Ukraine are accusing each other of planning a terrorist attack on the power plant. In this way, the power plant has become a weapon of war, posing a threat to millions of people in Ukraine, neighboring countries and throughout Europe. The power plant and its safety have become a pawn in this war.
The right to be spared from radioactive contamination should never have to be negotiated, stated Chuck Johnson, IPPNW Program Director for nuclear weapons and disarmament affairs.
In the Ukraine war, an attack on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant could have catastrophic consequences, causing a meltdown in up to six reactors and their associated spent fuel pools. An accidental or intentional meltdown at any or all of these facilities risks spreading radioactive contamination of cesium and other radioactive isotopes through the air and depositing it in the soil of Ukraine and surrounding states.
This has serious short- and long-term implications for human health, the environment, plants and animals, and food security. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has repeatedly warned of the dangers of military action in and on the site.
But, despite Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi’s recommendations on 30 May at the United Nations Security Council that there should be no attack from or against the plant and that it should not be used as storage or a base for heavy weapons—including multiple rocket launchers, artillery systems, munitions, and tanks—his warnings have not been taken seriously enough by either of the main combatants or any of the other interested parties.
Construction of the Zaporizhzhia power plant began in 1981. Five reactors were commissioned between 1984-1989, and a sixth in 1995. The reactors are more modern than the graphite-moderated reactors at Chernobyl and are similar to the pressurized water reactors in widespread use in the United States and Europe. The plant is Europe’s largest, built on the southern bank of the Kakhovka Reservoir on the Dnipro River, from which it draws its cooling water.
Before the Russian invasion, Ukraine generated about half its electricity from 15 nuclear power reactors across four sites, with Zaporizhzhia generating almost half of this. The plant has cooling ponds for spent nuclear fuel, which require continuous power and water (like the reactors themselves).
It also has a dry cask storage facility for spent reactor fuel when it no longer requires continuous water cooling. In 2017, Ukraine reported there were just over 2,200 tons of highly radioactive spent fuel at Zaporizhian, in the spent fuel pools and dry cask storage.
For example, the Chernobyl nuclear reactor burned for 11 days. 36 per cent of the of the total radioactive fallout occurred in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, and about 53% to the rest of Europe. 11 per cent was distributed to the rest of the world.
The Belarusian physician and epidemiologist Lydia Zablotska evaluated the health consequences of the Chernobyl accident 30 years later. Her epidemiological studies report an increased long-term risk of leukemia, cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease, and cataracts in clean-up workers, and for thyroid cancer and non-malignant diseases among children and adolescents.
Researchers Maureen Hatch and Elisabeth Cardis point out that the dose-dependent increase in thyroid cancer following exposure to iodine-131 in childhood in Ukraine and Belarus has been shown to persist for decades and that studies of clean-up workers point to a dose-dependent increase in thyroid cancer and hematologic malignancies in adults. They also report an increase in cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease.
During the Fukushima nuclear meltdown in 2011, large amounts of radioactive material were released into the atmosphere from the damaged reactors and the spent fuel storage pool and entered the groundwater and sea. The release continued for several weeks (26 days). 19 per cent of the radioactive fallout affected the main Japanese island of Honshu, 79 per cent entered the Pacific Ocean, and 2 per cent spread around the world. It was pure luck that it did not rain on the night of 14-15 March 2011, when the largest radioactive cloud passed over Japan, including the Tokyo metropolitan area with 36 million inhabitants.
The health effects of the Chernobyl disaster have so far been better studied than those of the Fukushima nuclear accident, although in both cases the important opportunity for large population-based long-term studies of the health effects of radiation exposure has been missed.
The results of the Chernobyl studies correlate well with other medical studies of the health effects of low doses of radiation conducted among nuclear workers, as well as with studies of the health effects of uranium mining, other low-dose radiological exposures, and also studies on the influence of residing near nuclear power plants and variations in background radiation on childhood cancers, especially leukemia.
In simple, flawless language, the NPT PrepCom and subsequent meetings of the NPT need to act to establish as a principle that an attack on nuclear power plants or other nuclear facilities is not a legitimate act of war, without exception. Due to the indiscriminate harm caused by a nuclear meltdown due to military activities, affecting combatants and noncombatants alike, IPPNW join with the IAEA to establish as principle a demilitarized zone around nuclear power facilities.
“I welcome the news that IAEA experts have finally been granted this additional access at the site. Timely, independent and objective reporting of facts on the ground is crucial to continue the IAEA’s efforts to support nuclear safety and security during the military conflict in the country,” according to Director General Grossi. [IDN-InDepthNews]
Top photo: Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. (22 July 2023) in Wikipedia.
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