What Happens If the Chernobyl Reactor in Ukraine is Attacked by Russia?

Russian troops have seized the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on Friday (25/2/2022). Despite being inactive for decades, the Chernobyl plant still contains nuclear waste that can pose a threat to the surrounding area.

So, what would happen if the site was bombed by Russia?

Chernobyl is the site of four nuclear reactors. Three of them have been disabled. The fourth reactor was the source of the historic explosion in 1986. It is now protected by a concrete sarcophagus on the inside and a new 32,000 tonne outer shell.

The Chernobyl site also still stores spent nuclear fuel from other reactors. The site also contains radioactive waste from contaminated equipment.

Even though the reactor was closed, radiation had polluted the entire site. In fact, dozens of radioactive elements were launched into the air.

Some of these are considered the most dangerous to life, including the isotopes iodine 131, strontium 90, cesium 134 and cesium 137. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the isotopes of strontium and cesium have half-lives long enough for the radioactive element to persist in these locations,

Now, with the Russian invasion, some figures are starting to worry that there will be shootings or attacks on this site in the future. Future fires are said to be able to spread this radioactive material far beyond the Chernobyl exclusion zone, a restricted area around the disaster.

On Thursday morning (24 February 2022), Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser and former deputy minister at the Ukrainian Interior Ministry, wrote on Facebook that if nuclear waste storage is destroyed, radioactive dust could cover the territory of Ukraine, Belarus and European Union countries.

However, Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists has a different opinion. He argues, the impact may not be that terrible.

“Even if there was an accidental shelling of the structure, I think it would require a lot more power to be able to mobilize a large amount of radioactive material,” Lyman told Live Science.

The spent fuel, or radioactive elements used to fuel nuclear plants, continues to decay into more stable elements. The elements continue to give off heat.

“The most serious concern is the wet storage of spent fuel, because that is probably the most concentrated amount of radioactive material at the site,” Lyman said.

He said generally spent nuclear fuel still has decay heat. So if it’s stored in a wet warehouse, there has to be a way to dissipate that heat.

That fuel has been cooling for at least a few decades. The goal is that the decay heat is not too high. However, if there is a disturbance in cooling or if there is a pool leak causing water to run off, then the fuel can heat up to the point where it can catch fire. That is perhaps the biggest threat.

However, he said such burning could take days or weeks. The reaction is not spontaneous.

According to him, the highly radioactive fuel inside the Chernobyl reactor is buried deep beneath the dead plant and is impossible to release unless the reactor is targeted directly.