The electricity supply to the ruined nuclear plant at Chernobyl in Ukraine has been cut off. According to one knowledgeable source I spoke to, this is a serious problem as power is needed to pump water around spent nuclear fuel rods stored there. There is a back-up diesel generator, but it has just one day’s supply of fuel left and once that runs out, the temperature could start to climb. If the water evaporates, the zirconium metal ‘fuel assemblies’ could start to melt – with radioactive material released into the atmosphere.
This would not be anywhere near as bad as the original Chernobyl disaster, in 1986, when a reactor had a power surge and exploded – but still bad enough. The war in Ukraine would spread beyond the country’s borders in the shape of a radioactive cloud of dust. That’s the assessment – and the fear – of the men and women running the Chernobyl nuclear site. The International Atomic Energy Authority, the IAEA, has issued an oddly complacent statement – but my source, a senior international official dealing with this issue, told me that the world should be paying attention to what’s happening in Chernobyl.
This official spoke to me after talking to Ukrainians who are responsible for Chernobyl. The problem is compounded by the fact that a skeleton night shift crew were on duty when the Russians arrived – and they have not been replaced. Mains power to the plant was cut yesterday because of fighting around Chernobyl. Some 20,000 spent fuel rods are stored in a large pool of water in a building there – the so-called wet storage facility. The water is still being pumped through the rods because a back-up generator has two days' supply of fuel. But that was yesterday. Now there one day’s supply remaining.
Any disaster would not be immediate. The official told me that Ukrainian nuclear engineers estimate it would take ‘about a week’ for the water to evaporate, exposing the spent fuel rods to the air. That is a rough estimate because it depends on things like the outside temperature. ‘Nobody knows how long we’ve got,’ the official said. ‘But spent fuel is highly radioactive. Worst case scenario: we are at the start of a serious chain of events.’
The IAEA does not sound concerned. A statement said that there was enough water around the rods ‘to maintain effective heat removal without the need for electrical supply’. However, the official I spoke to – who's with another international body concerned with nuclear safety – said he found what the IAEA had said ‘astonishing’. He told me:
“It was a totally irresponsible statement to make. It’s completely beyond me that they can feel they can speak with confidence about the status of the spent fuel assemblies without having inspected them. This is a very dangerous situation.
I asked if him if the Ukrainians could be exaggerating the dangers for propaganda reasons. He acknowledged that this was always a danger, but he said he was talking to engineers and others he had known for years – and he believed they were telling the truth.
Radiation levels around Chernobyl have already been rising, apparently, but that is thought to be a result of heavy military vehicles churning up contaminated soil around the site. So far, there has been no leak from the fuel storage site – and there is still time to make sure there is no leak. One mitigating factor: the fuel being stored at Chernobyl is old and not as radioactive as it once was – though still radioactive enough to cause widespread contamination across Europe, if the wind is blowing in the wrong direction.
One solution to this crisis would be for the power grid to be restored to Chernobyl. The power company have said they will send repair teams in to do that if they know they won’t be shot at – that is if there is a local ceasefire. But talks to obtain a ceasefire have yet to produce an agreement. A report that the Belarusian authorities are restoring power has yet to be confirmed. Another solution would be for the Russians to bring in diesel – the Ukrainian authorities no longer have access. The official told me: ‘It’s an important message to the occupying authorities. They must bring in more diesel'.
But the Russians are short of fuel for their convoy stalled on the way to Kiev. And Russian troops have been seen looting in many of the places they now occupy. This official, and other people I spoke to, were not optimistic that the Russian army could be relied on to send diesel to Chernobyl – even if failing to do so risked a nuclear disaster.