A missile hit on Ukraine’s Chernobyl nuclear power plant could bring a “disastrous” release of radioactivity into the environment, an expert told Newsweek.

Russia’s war on Ukraine has gone on for nearly a year, and as fierce military action continues, Chernobyl has been a focus of attention and concern. In April 1986, a meltdown of the plant’s reactor triggered the world’s worst nuclear disaster. This caused two devastating explosions, which led to radioactive debris and fuel pouring out into the surrounding area. The area is still highly radioactive today and off-limits to the public.

Russian forces seized the plant on February 24, the first day of its invasion of Ukraine. By March, about 600 Russian soldiers were deployed there.

The Russian troops then left in April, abandoning their stations, trenches and dugouts in the area. Even though troops are not occupying the area now, worries continue about how the conflict in Ukraine could affect the closed plant.

Radioactive warning
A stock photo shows a radiation warning sign. Even though Russian troops are no longer occupying the Chernobyl area now, worries continue about how the Ukraine war could affect the closed nuclear power plant.
Oleksii Hlembotskyi/Getty

Victor Becerra, a professor of power systems engineering at the U.K.’s University of Portsmouth, told Newsweek, “The use of missiles during the conflict is a worry, as the facilities that protect nuclear materials would be badly affected by a direct missile strike, most likely resulting in a disastrous release of radioactivity into the environment.

“Therefore, it is reasonable to argue that any form of military combat near Chernobyl, or any other nuclear facility, should be avoided at all costs,” he said.

This is not the only concern that has involved the nuclear plant since the Russian invasion began. For instance, the electricity supply to the site might be interrupted because of military action, Becerra said. Last year, this occurred at Ukraine’s operational Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the biggest in Europe.

“Chernobyl’s confinement structure around the fourth reactor needs electricity to operate its ventilation system, which is required to prevent the nuclear fuel inside from reaching dangerous temperatures,” Becerra said. “In addition, the large pools that store spent nuclear fuel need cooling, which depends on electricity for the operation of pumps.”

He went on: “There are backup diesel generators on-site but limited stocks of diesel fuel, which would only last for a few days. Thus, a long-term interruption in the electricity supply at the site would bring risks, as the nuclear fuel inside the fourth reactor would lose its ventilation, as the water in the storage pools may heat up and eventually evaporate, leaving spent fuel rods exposed.”

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is concerned about the staffers that still work at the plant to ensure its safety.

“Workers on-site when the plant was captured were not allowed to leave during the occupation period and continued to operate the plant,” Becerra said. “There are reports of some damage to buildings during the occupation and the possibility that contaminated ground was perturbed due to military activities, potentially exposing military personnel who may have inadvertently carried some radioactive dust outside the plant.”

Environmental groups became worried about the increase in radiation following Russia’s occupation. The IAEA issued a statement in April 2022, a few weeks after Russian troops left, confirming that there had been an increase in radiation in the area. But it said this did not pose a danger to the surrounding people or the environment.

In July, Greenpeace conducted research to assess for itself the radiation levels. The organization said at the time that the levels were “at least” three times higher than the IAEA’s estimates.

In the years following the disaster, the lack of human disturbance allowed an abundance of wildlife to return to the area. Scientists have observed brown bears, wolves, lynx, bison, moose, foxes and many other wild animals there. Around 200 species of birds have also returned to the zone, including a particularly rare species of eagle.

But since the Russian invasion, preliminary studies have suggested that the wildlife has dispersed from the area.

Tim Mousseau, a professor of biological sciences at the University of South Carolina, previously told Newsweek: “Although our wildlife monitoring studies are still continuing, they have not been as comprehensive as in the past because of land mines in the region and the concerns of a new invasion. Our very preliminary assessment is that many of the animals dispersed away from occupied areas during the invasion.”

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