There’s plenty of scary stuff taking place in the Ukraine starting with Vladimir Putin’s territorial ambitions, but threats to that nation’s nuclear reactors have been exaggerated by media reports.
The Washington Post would like you to be afraid, very afraid, and on a scared right down to your socks scale, the newspaper’s ambitions for pegging the fear index about nuclear reactors and the fighting in the Ukraine probably mirrors the experience of a night on bald mountain.
According to the newspaper, Putin’s rogue and Russian military forces could, in their clumsy manner, similar to shooting down a civilian airliner, blow up one or more of the 15 nuclear reactors in the Ukraine, and for good measure, make off with spent nuclear fuel to fabricate dirty bombs.
The article makes a valid point that an errant artillery shell or missile could do significant damage to one of the reactors and result in a dangerous release of radiation. And the Russians have a habit of being trigger happy having shot down a South Korean civilian airliner in 1983. So it’s clear the Kremlin doesn’t learn from its mistakes.
However, the fighting isn’t even near the reactor complex at Zaporozhye (six units) and the other nine reactors are all way over in the western half of the country. Further, the claim that the spent nuclear fuel could be used to make dirty bombs is overblown.
Are the reactors at risk?
Let’s start with fighting near the reactors. Putin obviously suffers from megalomania else he would not have started the turmoil in the Ukraine to begin with. However, neither he nor his military commanders wants radioactive contamination spewed across the countryside of the very territory they want to capture for dear old mother Russia. Even the most common foot soldier knows it is a bad idea to play with guns near a nuclear reactor. The Ukraine is a major breadbasket so even hot heads like Putin get the idea that rebels and their explosives need to be kept far away from nuclear reactors.
That said Putin and his rogue Russian forces have been mind bogglingly stupid in the shooting down of a civilian airliner. Reasonable people might believe that once a catastrophe like that happens, Putin’s generals will grab the fire control mechanisms to the missiles and put them under the control of regular Russian troops who understand the firepower that lurks at their fingertips.
On a more practical note, Putin appears to be blinking about his invasion of the Ukraine following a show of solidarity at the just concluded NATO summit. He’s personally directed the establishment of a cease fire with the Ukrainian government and especially for the southeastern portion of the country where intense fighting has been taking place this week.
Much of that fighting is taking place in and around Dontsk which is 230 Km northeast (143 miles) of the six reactors located at Zaporozhye. All the rest of Ukraine’s reactors are much further west and not impacted by the current fighting on the ground. The Washington Post’s own map (above) makes exactly the same point. There are 15 reactors at four locations, and none are any where near rebel forces (orange color on right side of map). So why did the Post on one hand try to terrify its readers about the potential threats to the reactors and on the other make an entirely a different point with the map?
Would spent fuel be accessible for making dirty bombs?
While in the abstract the hand wringing about dangers to nuclear reactors in the Ukraine isn’t entirely implausible, over stating it and buying into European anti-nuclear sentiment seems to stretch the point. The Post quotes Hans-Josef Allelein, chairman of the German Institute of Reactor Safety who says “theoretically . . . [spent fuel containers] could be used as dirty bombs.”
On a practical level this is not a plausible scenario. The reason is that if the rebels were to pull the spent fuel from wet storage, which is hot stuff, or breach a dry cask, it is still dangerous.
They would be dead from the effects of exposure to radiation before any of them could make or deliver a so-called dirty bomb. The reason is the half lives of some of the highly radioactive isotopes in the spent fuel in the casks are measured in tens of thousands of years.
Image on the right is courtesy of the World Nuclear Association.
The NRC point out that high-level wastes are hazardous to humans and other life forms because of their radiation levels that are capable of producing fatal doses during short periods of direct exposure.
“For example, ten years after removal from a reactor, the surface dose rate for a typical spent fuel assembly exceeds 10,000 rem/hour, whereas a fatal whole-body dose for humans is about 500 rem (if received all at one time).”
The dry casks are huge and very heavy and cannot be loaded on to the back of a pickup truck and carted away like a looted TV set. Each cask is composed of an outer steel and concrete shell with the spent fuel rods encased inside more steel cylinders . While some casks are designed for transportation, most are built on-site, loaded with spent fuel, and then sealed for eternity.
While the Ukrainian spent fuel casks won’t look exactly like the image from WNA, you get the idea that breaking into one isn’t going to happen at the hands of a bunch of rogue foot soldiers. According to Duke Engineering, which supplied dry casks to the reactors at Zaporozhye, the transfer from wet to dry storage has been going on since 2001.
“In Ukraine, a dry storage facility has been accepting spent fuel from the six-unit Zaporozhye Nuclear Power Plant (VVER-1000 reactors) since 2001, making it the longest-serving such facility in the former Soviet Union. The system was designed by Duke Engineering of the United States, with the storage casks being manufactured locally.“
Fact Sheet: Zaporozhye Nuclear Power Plant Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage Facility
To sum it up, the Post got a scary headline out of the issue, but the situation may not be nearly so dire as the newspaper implies.
One for the road
But we’re not done yet, the NBC television has a story about radioactive wild boars near the crippled Chernobyl reactor in the Ukraine that would be frightening if it weren’t so ridiculous once you apply scientific measurement to it.
According to nuclear scientist Jim Conca, the level of radiation is so small you would have to eat 28 pounds of wild boar meat to suffer any exposure.
The story reminds me of the great Thanksgiving cranberry scare of 1959 in which the nation’s crop of the bright red berries was briefly blighted by a media frenzy over the risk of cancer from a weed killer used by farmers. The weed killer issue was relevant for some farms in Oregon and Washington, but the whole nation had a knee jerk reaction and even then President Eisenhower took the fruit off his dinner table.
For more insights into the wild boar nonsense, read Conca’s debunking of the issue in his weekly column on Forbes.
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