After all, President Donald Trump formally removed the United States from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Weapons Treaty, which has long been seen as a cornerstone of arms control between the two superpowers.
Once isolated from the power grid, backup power is critical to preventing the plant’s reactors from overheating, which might result in a full-fledged nuclear meltdown.)According to electrical engineer Josh Karpoff, relying on risky backup power is a fool’s game.
Remember how backup generators failed at Japan’s three Fukushima nuclear reactors in 2011?
They control the Chornobyl and Zaporizhzhia nuclear power reactor plants, storing weapons and soldiers as safe havens.
All of this makes me concerned that the old Hanford tanks could be used as a target in the future.
Albert Einstein sent a telegraph to several hundred American leaders and politicians in 1946, warning that the “unleashed power of the atom has changed everything but our modes of thinking, and we so wander towards unprecedented catastrophe.” Einstein’s prediction was correct. Nuclear disaster is still a possibility.
Even before Vladimir Putin’s murderous invasion of Ukraine, the possibility of a nuclear clash between NATO and Russia was rising. After all, President Donald Trump formally removed the United States from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Weapons Treaty, which has long been seen as a cornerstone of arms control between the two superpowers.
“Russia is fully to blame for the treaty’s collapse,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed following the announcement. “With the full support of our NATO allies, the United States judged that Russia was in material breach of the treaty and suspended our duties.” There was no evidence of the violation provided, but in Trump’s world, no evidence was required.
But, on February 21 of this year, in response to the Biden administration’s assertions that Russia was no longer fulfilling its duties under the New START treaty, the final surviving nuclear arms deal between the two countries, Putin stated that his government would withdraw from the treaty.
The threat of nuclear war has only grown in the year since Russia’s initial assault on Ukraine. When President Biden’s White House raised concerns that Putin would indeed deploy any of Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists ominously reset its Doomsday Clock to 90 seconds to midnight, the closest since its establishment in 1947. Some scientific experts were sceptical of the Biden administration’s claims.
“As Russia’s war on Ukraine continues, the last remaining nuclear weapons deal between Russia and the United States…is under threat,” said a Bulletin press statement dated January 2023, before Putin backed out of the agreement. “Unless the two parties reopen negotiations and find a basis for further reductions, the treaty will expire in February 2026. This would eliminate reciprocal inspections, deepen mistrust, encourage a nuclear weapons race, and heighten the probability of a nuclear exchange.”
Of course, they were correct, and the Norwegian government announced in mid-February that Russia had already deployed ships armed with tactical nuclear weapons in the Baltic Sea for the first time in more than 30 years. “Tactical nuclear weapons pose a particularly dangerous threat in several operational scenarios in which NATO members may be involved,” according to the paper. “As long as there are tensions between Russia and the West, Russia will continue to pose the greatest nuclear threat to NATO and Norway.”
NATO, for its part, held its nuclear bombing drills, dubbed “Steadfast Noon,” in October 2022, with fighter jets in Europe’s skies participating in “war simulations” (minus live weaponry). “It’s an exercise to ensure that our nuclear deterrent remains safe, secure, and effective,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg declared. However, it nearly appeared like NATO dared Putin to go over the line.
Yet, this is the genuine horror narrative lying underneath Ukraine’s battle. While a nuclear tit-for-tat between Russia and NATO—an exchange that could potentially destroy much of Eastern Europe in no time—is a natural, albeit terrifying, possibility, it isn’t the most immediate radioactive threat confronting the region.
Averting a Panic
We should all be aware of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear complex (ZNPP), located directly in the path of Russia’s assault on Ukraine. Zaporizhzhia, built between 1980 and 1986, is Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, with six 950-megawatt reactors. The Russians took over the beleaguered plant in February and March of last year following a series of violent skirmishes that resulted in a fire at a neighbouring training site. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was later dispatched to ensure that the reactors were not in imminent danger of melting down and issued a report stating, in part, that “further escalation affecting the six-reactor plant could lead to a severe nuclear accident with potentially grave radiological consequences for human health and the environment in Ukraine and elsewhere, and that renewed shelling at or near the ZNPP was deeply troubling for nuclear safety.”
The fighting has only gotten worse since then. Several of the plant’s Ukrainian employees, including its deputy director Valery Martynyuk, were kidnapped by Russia. Due to persistent shelling in the vicinity, Zaporizhzhia was brought down in September 2022 and has since relied irregularly on obsolete diesel backup generators after losing external power many times. (Once isolated from the power grid, backup power is critical to preventing the plant’s reactors from overheating, which might result in a full-fledged nuclear meltdown.)
According to electrical engineer Josh Karpoff, relying on risky backup power is a fool’s game. Karpoff is a Science for the People member who previously worked for the New York State Office of General Services. He constructed electrical systems for buildings, including big standby generators. He informs me that, during hos, He compares a backup generator to a ’75 Winnebago in terms of dependability.
“It’s not difficult to knock out these diesel generators,” Karpoff adds. “If your standby generator starts up but indicates a leak in a high-pressure oil line fitting, it sprays heated, aerosolized oil all over the hot motor, creating a fire. This happens all the time with diesel engines. A similar diesel engine fire in a train contributed to the Lac Megantic Rail Accident in Quebec in 2013.”
Karpoff, unfortunately, is on point. Remember how backup generators failed at Japan’s three Fukushima nuclear reactors in 2011? Many people claim that the 9.0 magnitude underwater earthquake caused them to melt. However, this is not true.
It was, in reality, a horrifying succession of events that only got worse. While the earthquake did not damage Fukushima’s reactors, it disconnected the facility from the electrical grid, forcing the plant to resort to backup generators. Even though the fission reaction had ceased, the radioactive material inside the reactor cores was still producing heat. A continuous water supply reliant on backup power was required to keep the roots from melting. Then, 30 minutes after the massive quake, a tsunami struck, knocking out the plant’s seawater pumps and causing the generators to fail.
“The tsunami myth is that the tsunami wrecked the [generators], and everything would have been great if that hadn’t happened,” former nuclear engineer Arnie Gunderson told Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! “What occurred was that the tsunami ruined the [sea] pumps all along the ocean… Without that water, the [diesel generators] will overheat; without that water, it’s impossible to cool a nuclear core.”
With the sea pumps out of service, 12 of the plant’s 13 generators failed. The inability to cool caused the reactors to melt, resulting in three hydrogen explosions that spewed radioactive material, swept disastrously throughout the region and out to sea by prevailing winds, where much of it will float about and collect for decades.
Various possibilities in Zaporizhzhia could result in a similar failure of the standby generators. They might be shelled directly and catch fire, clog up, or run out of fuel. The prolonged conflict puts Ukraine and the surrounding countries on the verge of a catastrophic nuclear calamity.
“I don’t know how long we’ll be lucky in avoiding a nuclear catastrophe,” remarked Rafael Grossi, director general of the IAEA, in late January, describing the scenario as “bizarre: a Ukrainian facility in Russian-controlled territory, supervised by Russians, but run by Ukrainians.”
Something Will Go Wrong
Regrettably, we must be concerned about more than only Zaporizhzhia. Even though they have received little attention, 14 more nuclear power facilities are in the fighting zone. Russia has also acquired the destroyed Chornobyl facility, where there is still large hot radioactive waste that must be kept cold.
This April, Kate Brown, author of Plutopia, told Science for the People:
The Russians treat these two captured nuclear facilities as kings on a chessboard. They control the Chornobyl and Zaporizhzhia nuclear power reactor plants, storing weapons and soldiers as safe havens. This is a novel military tactic in which the vulnerability of these sites is used as a defensive strategy. The Russians must have assumed that the Ukrainians would not shoot. When the Russians arrived in the Chornobyl zone, they discovered that the Ukrainian security of the Chornobyl facility stood down because they did not want missiles fired at these vulnerable installations. 20,000 spent nuclear fuel rods are at that plant, with more than half in basins. It’s a dangerous situation. This is a novel situation for us.
Of course, the dangers to Zaporizhzhia and Chornobyl might be lessened if Putin removed his forces tomorrow, but that is unlikely. It’s also worth mentioning that Ukraine isn’t the only location where such a situation could play out. Taiwan has multiple nuclear power reactors at the core of a possible military war between the US and China. Iran has a nuclear power plant. Pakistan has six reactors spread across two sites. Saudi Arabia is constructing a new facility. The list continues indefinitely.
Even more sadly, Russia has raised the nuclear stakes in a new way, setting a worrying precedent with its illegal occupation of Zaporizhzhia and Chornobyl, turning them into means of war. No other power-generating source, even the most heinous of fossil-fuel consumers, offers a potentially significant and imminent threat to life as we know it on our planet.
While attacking those Ukrainian reactors is one recipe for disaster, other potentially catastrophic “peaceful” nuclear options exist. What about deliberately attacking nuclear waste plants or those dangerous backup generators? You wouldn’t have to hit the reactors directly to trigger a calamity. Disconnect the electrical grid’s supply lines and hit the generators; bad things will happen. The dangers of nuclear power, especially ostensibly “peaceful” nuclear power, are apparent.
The Worst of All Evils
In my new book, Atomic Days: The Hidden Tale of America’s Most Hazardous Site, I investigate the horrors of the Hanford facility in Washington state, which was chosen to create the first nuclear weapons for the covert Manhattan Project during WWII. For over four decades, that facility produced most of the plutonium utilised in the massive American atomic weapons stockpile.
On the other hand, Hanford is now a radioactive wasteland and the most extensive and expensive environmental cleanup operation in history. To call it a shambles would be an understatement. Hanford has 177 underground tanks laden with 56 million gallons of radioactive muck. Two of those tanks are already leaking, with waste pouring into groundwater and perhaps reaching the Columbia River. High-level whistleblowers I met at Hanford expressed concern that a hydrogen build-up in one of those tanks, if ignited, might result in a Chornobyl-like disaster here in the United States, resulting in a tragedy, unlike anything this country has ever seen.
All of this makes me concerned that the old Hanford tanks could be used as a target in the future. A missile strike or sabotage on them might significantly release radioactive material from coast to coast. The economy would implode. Cities would become uninhabitable. There is also precedent: A significant explosion happened in 1957 at Mayak, Hanford’s Cold War sister plant in the then-Soviet Union that produced plutonium for nuclear weapons. Mostly obscure, it was the second biggest peacetime atomic disaster ever, only “bested” by the Chornobyl accident. In Mayak’s case, a malfunctioning cooling system failed, and the waste in one of the facility’s tanks overheated, resulting in a radioactive blast equivalent to 70 tonnes of TNT that contaminated 20,000 square miles. Many individuals died, and entire villages were destroyed.
All of this is to suggest that nuclear waste, whether on or off the battlefield, is a fundamentally dangerous business. Nuclear power plants worldwide, with less waste than the underground silos at Hanford, have already demonstrated their weaknesses. Last August, the Russians stated that containers housing spent fuel waste at Zaporizhzhia were shelled by Ukrainian soldiers. “One guided shell landed 10 metres near them (containers containing radioactive waste…). Others fell a little further—50 to 200 metres,” said Vladimir Rogov, a Russian-appointed administrator there. “Since the storage facility is open, a shell or a rocket may unseal containers and kilogrammes, or perhaps hundreds of kilogrammes of radioactive waste will be expelled into the environment and contaminate it. Simply described, it will be a “dirty bomb.”
Ukraine, in turn, blamed Russia for the hit. Still, regardless of who was responsible, both Ukrainians and Russians recognise the terrible dangers of atomically charged explosions after Chornobyl (which some studies say affected up to 1.8 million people). This explains why the Russians appear to be erecting protective coverings over Zaporizhzhia’s sewage storage tanks. A mishap at the plant that releases radioactive particles would harm not just Ukraine but also Russia.
As former New York Times journalist Chris Hedges so aptly put it, war is the worst of horrors, and the prospect of a nuclear holocaust magnifies those atrocities immensely. Worse, a radioactive Apocalypse does not have to result from the detonation of atomic weapons. It can take many different shapes. As Einstein predicted, the atom has changed everything.