Fighting Near Ukrainian Nuclear Site Must End to Prevent Chernobyl-Like Disaster

The International Atomic Energy Agency is calling for a safety and security protection zone to be immediately set up around the facility in order to avoid a nuclear disaster at Europe’s largest nuclear power plant. After visiting the Zaporizhzhia power plant last week, the International Atomic Energy Agency released a long-awaited document urging Russia to establish a demilitarized zone. “Their warnings are pretty clear: Unless the fighting stops, unless the shelling around and on the plant site stops, … then the plant is really skating on thin ice,” says Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists. We also went to Kyiv for Olexi Pasyuk’s interview with Ecoaction’s deputy director in Ukraine. He said that the IAEAThe report will not have any impact on fighting, but it will raise awareness about the risks. “This is what Ukraine wanted to hear … that the only way to have it safe is to demilitarize the area,” says Pasyuk.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Ukraine, where residents near the Russian-held Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant are being urged to evacuate as fighting continues in the area. The International Atomic Energy Agency is calling for a safety and security protection zone to be immediately set up around the facility in order to avoid a nuclear disaster at Europe’s largest nuclear power plant. The IAEATuesday’s report on the dreadful conditions at the plant was issued by the inspectors who visited it last week. Russia and Ukraine accuse one another of attacking the plant, which Russia has controlled since March. The IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi spoke Tuesday.

RAFAEL GROSSI:It is unacceptable to witness and evaluate the physical attacks that this facility has suffered, whether they were intentional or not. We are playing with fire and something very, very tragic could happen. … A specific recommendation in my report that the operator should be allowed to return to its clear and routine line of responsibilities and authorities and that an appropriate work environment must be reestablished, including with proper family support for the staff.

AMY GOODMAN:Ukraine is considering closing down Zaporizhzhia’s nuclear power station due to safety concerns.

For more, we’re joined by two guests. Olexi Pasyuk, deputy director of Ukraine, is here with us. NGOEcoaction, where he is primarily concerned with energy and nuclear power. Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists and co-author of this book, will be joining us. Fukushima – The story of a Nuclear Disaster. He recently wrote the following: article headlined “Can the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Plant Avoid a Major Disaster?”

We are happy to welcome you both. Democracy Now!From D.C. and Kyiv. Let’s go to Washington, D.C., first. Edwin Lyman, your evaluation of the IAEA report? How dire is the situation Can a nuclear catastrophe be avoided?

EDWIN LYMAN:Amy, you are right! IAEA doesn’t usually use such strong language, so I think it’s important to take notice when they do. Their warnings are clear: Unless fighting ceases, unless shelling around the plant site is stopped and workers are able to restore all of the disabled backup power systems, then the plant will be unstable and skating on thin ice. There is great concern.

NERMEEN SHAIKH:Olexi, could your response be to the IAEA report? Your response to their assessment about the situation at the nuclear power station?

OLEXI PASYUK: Yeah. Hello. First, let me say that we need to understand what the International Atomic Energy Agency is. There are a lot expectations from the organization, but which has very limited impact. I mean, they were designed to promote nuclear while also trying to stop radioactive material spread. So, I personally didn’t expect much from their visit to the power plant, because the [inaudible]The fact that the Russian army intervened in safety processes at the plant is enough to raise concern. This is what Ukraine wanted, to hear that Russia has basically intervened in its safety and that it is necessary to demilitarize the region.

NERMEEN SHAIKH:Can you provide some background? This is because Russia occupied the plant in March, shortly after their invasion of Ukraine. Why do you think they occupied this plant? I mean, this plant provides something like 20% of all of Ukraine’s electric supply.

OLEXI PASYUK: Well, I think we must stress, really, this fact that the sole fact that they attacked a power plant was, in a way, already breaking Geneva Convention protocol, which says this kind of site shouldn’t be attacked. It doesn’t matter if it’s nuclear or big dams. And it’s actually in violation of a couple of decisions made by International Atomic Energy Agency member states.

Why did they do it? Well, first of all, as you try to cover the area and there is a nuclear power plant, basically, it’s on your way you go to there. But, indeed, it’s the biggest power plant in the region — I mean, in Europe. This is the unfortunate nature of nuclear power. You have these large power plants where the generation is concentrated. So, once you’re in control of the plant, you are in control of the big chunk of electricity production. Russia uses the power station as a sort of safe base at the moment, as the Ukrainian military is limited in their ability to attack the military on the site. Russia is using the nuclear power plant site to attack Ukraine with artillery.

AMY GOODMAN:Olexi Pasyuk. Can you please explain the military situation in Zaporizhzhia. It is very significant. Both Russia and Ukraine accuse the other of shelling. What do you know about what is happening and how is the plant being used? And how many of the plants themselves — what? — there are six there; this is the largest station in Europe — have been shut down already?

OLEXI PASYUK:Let me start at the beginning. This is one of many discussions that is taking place as to why, of six units, there were only two units currently working. It’s even on the — right after attack, when Russia occupied the station, when they were shooting on the site, there were two units which were operating. They were shut down and then restarted. The power plant is vital as an electricity source for the region. This is true for both occupied territories where Russia wants electricity supply and for territories under Ukrainian control.

That area is under Russian military control in general. But we do not know the details because we were able to see it from different angles, making it difficult for us to assess what is really going on. We have some evidence when there were Ukrainians were attacking — there is this footage — on some of the Russian, like, soldiers, basically, on the camp just outside the power plant. But as to the attacks on site, it’s difficult indeed to say who does it, because there is also this question that there are like four electricity lines going out of the power plant, and there could be different interests to put them down.

NERMEEN SHAIKH:Edwin Lyman: I mean one of the things that is the IAEA report concluded is that there’s no indication, at least at the moment, of elevated radiation levels at the plant, though the Ukrainian nuclear state company has said that radiation-monitoring sensors have been damaged, and so it’s not really possible to measure radiation levels so accurately and elevation in radiation levels. Would you be able to comment on this and explain what you think it is?

EDWIN LYMAN: Yes. Well, by all accounts, there haven’t been any — enough damage to any of the safety systems to compromise the nuclear reactor safety or the safety of spent fuel. Although there was some damage to a building housing low-level radioactive materials, it is unlikely that any contamination was released. But it’s also important to know that it is very possible to measure very, very low levels of radioactivity far away from the actual release. It is possible to detect radioactivity in other locations around the world, such as Western Europe, if there was a greater release. So there’s no way that it could be concealed for very long if there were a severe event at the plant.

However, the situation remains unstable. Right now there’s apparently no offsite power going to the plant. And my understanding is only one reactor is operating, at very low power, and it’s only operating to power itself and the other reactors which are shut down. This reactor is basically holding its own by its bootstraps. That’s an unusual and unstable configuration for a nuclear power plant, and that’s, again, a great concern. This plant should be shut down unless the offsite power can be restored quickly.

AMY GOODMAN:Edwin Lyman, can you answer the European Union’s request to donate five-and a half million potassium iodide tablet to Ukraine in order to combat radiation around Zaporizhzhia. Explain what that means.

EDWIN LYMAN: Yes. Yes. Because the thyroid is a natural absorber of iodine, radioactive iodine can build up in the thyroid and cause radiation to a limited area. This can significantly increase the chance of developing cancer. Thyroid cancer, which is not a common condition, was a major consequence of the 1986 Chernobyl accident. The accident resulted in many thousands, if possible tens to thousands, of thyroid cancers. You can prevent radioactive iodine from being absorbed by taking stable iodine within six hour of exposure. So that’s one measure for addressing that one consequence of a nuclear accident. A nuclear reactor is actually a mixture of hundreds of isotopes that interact with the body in different ways. And radioactive — or, stable iodine can only address one of those pathways.

NERMEEN SHAIKH:Edwin Lyman, as you know, is one of the issues. IAEA report raised is the situation for workers at the plant, who have been working now, of course, for several months under conditions of extreme stress, on top of which some of the operating staff at the facility don’t have unrestricted access to some areas. This means that staff are not allowed to access certain areas of the facility. So, could you talk about that, the concerns about workers being exhausted and working under stressful conditions, and also what it means that — what the risks are of workers not being granted access, unrestricted access, to certain areas of the plant?

EDWIN LYMAN: Yes, you can’t really understate the importance of the personnel in the operation of a nuclear power plant, both under normal conditions and under emergency conditions. My understanding is that the plant’s staff is now less than half what it was before the invasion. This is a concern because it places an undue burden on the remaining staff. This is compounded with the Russian military’s pressure on the staff. It could affect their ability to carry out their activities in a free and unrestricted manner. And it’s also important to have clear lines of command, as IAEAGrossi, Director General, pointed out. If there is an accident, you have to know who’s in charge. There may be only a few hours to respond before you can prevent a meltdown. So, it’s very important that the staff be well rested, not be under stress, know who’s in command, and be able to do what they need to do and go where they need to go. And if they can’t, if there’s any indication of those restrictions, then it raises questions about the ability of the personnel to respond effectively to an accident.

Another problem is the fire brigade. A fire at a nuclear power station is a serious event that could cause widespread damage to safety systems, and possibly multiple meltdowns. Because of shelling damage to the fire station at the Zaporizhia, the fire brigade needed to be moved. That means they’re going to have a longer time to respond if something does happen in the plant. All of these are very concerning.

AMY GOODMAN: Edwin, I wanted to ask you about the nuclear power plants, not only in Ukraine but all over, related to climate change, this catastrophe that’s being experienced around the world. I flew to Ukraine several years ago after I attended the U.N. Climate Summit in Katowice. There are many monuments in many cities to remember those who died at Chernobyl. This was a different situation. However, it explains the crisis of nuclear power and climate change, when water levels drop to cool the fuel rods.

EDWIN LYMAN: Yes. Well, nuclear power plants are often touted as a solution to climate change, because when they operate, they don’t release greenhouse gases. But you have to consider that in the context of their risks compared to renewable energy sources that don’t have the potential for a catastrophic accident.

And what you’re referring to is the impact of climate change on nuclear power and the fact that nuclear power plants, at least current-generation plants, require a consistent, steady supply of cool water to remove heat from the cores when they’re operating. So, if climate change stresses nuclear power plants by droughts, by reducing water levels in lakes and rivers, and by increasing temperature, that puts constraints on the operation of nuclear plants, because they can’t — they can’t operate if the cooling water they have access to is too warm, so that when you see heat waves — and we’ve seen this in France, but also occasionally in the United States, when water levels — when water temperatures get too high, the plants have to derate or even shut down. So, that’s certainly something you have to keep in mind when you think about increasing the use of nuclear power as a climate mitigation option.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Edwin, you’ve raised concerns also about what the impact of this might be on agricultural lands around the plant and well beyond it. As you know, Ukraine is one of the breadbaskets in the world. What do you think — what are your concerns about that? And did you have similar concerns also — you’ve co-authored a book on Fukushima — what happened following that disaster, as well as Chernobyl?

EDWIN LYMAN:When considering all the consequences of large releases of radioactivity from a nuclear power plant accident, it is important to consider not only the direct effects on the public but also the contamination of water supplies as well as the contamination of agricultural lands. Fukushima prefecture was a case in point. There was radiological contamination everywhere.

Zaporizhzhia in Ukraine is close to these very fertile agricultural land. And even if a radiological release didn’t travel that far, for instance, across the international borders, it could still have a big impact on agriculture there and potentially taint the exports that are so important to the rest of the world.

AMY GOODMAN:Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety at The Union of Concerned Scientists, and co-author of, we want you to know how much we appreciate your presence. Fukushima – The Story of a Nuclear Disaster. And we’ll link to your piece, “Can the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Plant Avoid a Major Disaster?” And we want to thank Olexi Pasyuk in Kyiv, Ukraine, with the Ukrainian NGO Ecoaction.

Next, Somalia faces a looming food shortage. We’ll go to Mogadishu to speak with the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, and we’ll go to Ethiopia, where drought is devastating East Africa. Stay with us.