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Russians are advancing on another nuclear power plant, Ukraine's president says

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Here in Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says Russian forces are advancing toward a third nuclear power plant. It was just Friday that Russia seized control of Europe's largest nuclear power plant in Ukraine's port city of Zaporizhzhia. The facility came under intense shelling and at one point caught on fire, raising the specter of a nuclear disaster in the middle of Russia's invasion. Now, the International Atomic Energy Agency says Russian forces have cut off almost all communication with the staff running the plant. Mariana Budjeryn is Ukrainian and a nuclear expert at Harvard's Belfer Center and says a staff that's scared and exhausted could make mistakes.

MARIANA BUDJERYN: You can imagine that these people, these specialists and operators of nuclear reactors, they are - they're under duress. They must feel like hostages in their own plant. They must be worried about the safety of their family members. So there's certainly a human element to safety and security and the ability of people to carry out, under these conditions - to carry out their duties and to maintain all of the safety procedures necessary for the operation of a nuclear power plant.

FADEL: What do you think the strategy is behind an attack like this, and what does it mean for the other plants in Ukraine?

BUDJERYN: Well, if you control the country's power supply, you have a great extent of control over that country writ large. Ukraine relies very heavily on nuclear energy. About 50% of its energy mix - overall energy mix - comes from nuclear power plants. So if you seize those, you pretty much control what people get full electricity, what industry gets full electricity, and it's one of the ways to control and subdue a country.

FADEL: You mentioned, you know, this is a violation of international law, the way this plant was attacked and occupied. Just lay out for us what it would mean if it overheated, if it exploded? What would it mean? What would happen?

BUDJERYN: So since the Chernobyl nuclear accident, the international community learned, and we're designing our reactors and reactor buildings in a more responsible way. However, none of these structures were designed with a full-blown, full-scale war in mind. We designed to the previous accidents, right? We learned from the previous accidents - from Chernobyl, from the Three Mile Island, from Fukushima Daiichi. And we improve based on the things that went wrong there. We clearly have not experienced anything like this before - whether backup systems could be damaged, whether diesel fuel could be exploded, right? So...

FADEL: Whether it runs out.

BUDJERYN: Or whether it runs out after a while, right? There isn't an endless supply of diesel. So I am extremely worried. And also, if there really is a nuclear event, as we say it, so some kind of radioactive release, what we've learned in the past, both in Chernobyl and in Fukushima Daiichi accidents, is that a nuclear accident anywhere is really a nuclear accident everywhere. You cannot control the weather. The winds can carry this radioactivity far and wide. It could affect Russia. It - Chernobyl accident affected much of central and northern Europe. There have been contamination as far out as in Ireland and in Wales. Some sheep farms have been closed and have not been able to sell their livestock until early 2000s. So we're not only talking about the geography of contamination, we're talking about a time scale of decades...

FADEL: A disaster.

BUDJERYN: ...That these consequences could continue to play out.

FADEL: Budjeryn says she worries that if Putin is bested militarily, he has a terrifying card to play.

BUDJERYN: Putin cannot be seen as losing to Ukraine. That would be a terrible thing for him - to be seen as losing to someone like Ukrainians whom he looks like, by all indications, looks like he despises. In that case - and I swear I would not even contemplate something like that eight days ago, but now it does not sound so inconceivable. In that case, I wonder if he might resort to use of a tactical - of a small nuclear weapon to shock Ukraine on Ukrainian territory somewhere - and the target would be secondary - to shock Ukraine into surrender.

FADEL: Wow. Wow. When you say tactical, what does that actually mean? Like, how many people - what area gets affected?

BUDJERYN: There's a range. So there are certainly, you know, bombs or shells that are more powerful than Hiroshima. So - but I think Hiroshima is a good approximation, so something like Hiroshima.

FADEL: Oh, man. So when you say small, you mean - I mean, in my opinion, that sounds big.

BUDJERYN: Right. But in today's terms, Hiroshima is a small weapon, is a small nuclear weapon. So this is something - you know, a destruction of a city, of some large military target, like an air base or an airport, that could certainly be an option or a target of a tactical nuke. Another possible thing is to do - is to explode a nuclear weapon in the atmosphere above the city and cause the so-called electromagnetic pulse. So that would just knock out electricity and radio signal in, you know, the radius, I don't know, of a few miles. And again, that would incapacitate a city. But, you know, technically, perhaps it wouldn't be radiation poisoning, and perhaps the nuclear taboo might not be crossed in such an egregious way. So there are options with nuclear use that are short of, you know, the destruction of the - of humankind.

FADEL: Right.

BUDJERYN: And this is precisely why Russia holds on to so many tactical nuclear weapons. There's almost 3,000 of them in central storages. They claim they're not deployed. But it's not very hard to take them out of the storage and bring them to units. And I think American satellites are watching these storages very, very closely. So at least we have some comfort that we might have some advance warning should there be an activity around these nuclear storages.

FADEL: Terrifying. Mariana Budjeryn, a Ukrainian expert at the project on Managing the Atom at Harvard University's Belfer Center. Thank you so much.

BUDJERYN: Thank you.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this story, and in a previous web headline, we incorrectly say Russia is reportedly advancing on the third of Ukraine's four active nuclear power plants. Only one of the country's active nuclear power plants, the Zaporizhzhia facility, has been seized as of Tuesday. Russian forces have also seized the Chernobyl plant, which was decommissioned after the 1986 disaster.]

(SOUNDBITE OF BEWARE OF SAFETY'S "STEP OR STONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: March 8, 2022 at 12:00 AM EST
In this story, and in a previous web headline, we incorrectly say Russia is reportedly advancing on the third of Ukraine's four active nuclear power plants. Only one of the country's active nuclear power plants, the Zaporizhzhia facility, has been seized as of Tuesday. Russian forces have also seized the Chernobyl plant, which was decommissioned after the 1986 disaster.