Even If Nuclear War Is Averted, Ukraine’s Reactors Could Be in Line of Fire

A renowned organization comprised of U.S. and Russian physicians warned late Tuesday that a military conflict involving the two powers in Ukraine risks a nuclear “catastrophe” that could have horrific effects on all of Europe — and potentially the entire planet.

In a new statement, nuclear energy specialists joined members of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) — a coalition of medical groups that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985 for its non-proliferation work — in noting that while Ukraine does not possessIt does keep nuclear weapons more than a dozen nuclear power reactorsIf the current situation escalates into war, those could be in the firing line.

Linda Pentz Gunter, founder of the advocacy group Beyond Nuclear, said a conflict in Ukraine could result in a disaster on par with — or even worse than — the devastating 1986 Chernobyl reactor crisis.

“No matter the genesis, the cause, or who started what, the reality remains that there are 15 operating nuclear reactors in Ukraine that, if conflict breaks out there, could be in peril,” said Gunter. “If the reactors find themselves amidst a conflict or war, they cannot simply be abandoned by the workforce. This makes the prospects of a war in Ukraine all the more alarming, and the imperative to avoid this all the more urgent.”

Physicians expressed concern that the current crisis could escalate to nuclear weapons. While the U.S. and Russia — which together control more than 90% of the world’s nuclear arsenal — signed a joint statement earlier this year affirming that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” the military doctrines of both nations allow for the first use of nukes in conflict.

“If even a single 100-kiloton nuclear weapon exploded over the Kremlin, it could kill a quarter of a million people and injure a million more, completely overwhelming the disaster response capability of the Russian capital,” said Dr. Ira Helfand, co-president of IPPNW. “A single 100 kiloton bomb detonated over the U.S. capital would kill over 170,000 people and injure nearly 400,000.”

“But it is unlikely that an escalating nuclear conflict between the U.S. and Russia would involve single warheads over their respective capitals,” Helfand added. “Rather it is more likely that there would be many weapons directed against many cities and many of these weapons would be substantially larger than 100 Kt.”

Over the weekend, Dr. Olga Mironova — a cardiologist in Moscow and president of IPPNW’s Russian affiliate —led an emergency discussion focused on the health impacts of a potential nuclear war involving the U.S. and Russia, which have roughly 6,000 nuclear warheads each.

The physicians’ dire warnings came as tensions between Russia and the West continued to grow in the aftermath of President Vladimir Putin’s decision Monday to send troops into breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine — a move that the U.S. and European countries met with a barrage of economic sanctions.

Citing Russia’s deployment of troops into Ukraine, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announcedLate Tuesday, he cancelled his meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. This could spell doom for diplomatic negotiations. peace groups sayThey are the only way to stop the brink of war.

Over the last few weeks, observers have complained about how little attention the possibility that there could be a nuclear conflict has received from politicians and the press in relation to its threat. Further heightening peace advocates’ concerns was Russia’s recent stagingDuring nuclear drills, there were also exercises that included practice launches for intercontinental ballistic missiles.

“Of all the obvious dangers that come with war, one of the most far-reaching in the current Russia-Ukraine conflict has been woefully underappreciated. Even if commanders took pains to avoid striking Ukraine’s 15 nuclear power reactors, that might not be enough to avoid a catastrophe,” Bennett Ramberg, an expert on nuclear weapons, wroteIn an op ed Project SyndicateLast week.

“The reactors present a daunting specter. The installations could become radiological mines if they are struck. And Russia itself would be a victim of the ensuing wind-borne radioactive debris,” Ramberg observed. “Were a reactor core to melt, explosive gases or belching radioactive debris would exit the containment structure. The effluents will settle in the atmosphere for thousands of miles, dumping light and very toxic radioactive elements onto urban and rural landscapes. And spent nuclear fuel could cause further devastation if storage pools were set afire.”

But Dr. Barry Levy, a leading expert on the health consequences of military conflicts, stressed Tuesday that even if a nuclear disaster is averted, “much death and illness could occur among noncombatant civilians from explosive weapons, population displacement, and damage to hospitals and clinics, water treatment plants, and the food supply system” in the case of a conventional war.

“As a result, children and pregnant women would suffer from malnutrition, more infants would be born prematurely, and more women would die during childbirth,” said Levy. “More people would contract communicable diseases, including Covid-19. More older people, who comprise more than one-sixth of Ukraine’s population, would develop complications of heart disease, lung disorders, and diabetes. And many Ukrainians would suffer from depression and posttraumatic stress disorder.”