FROM THE FIELD
Russia-Ukraine Crisis

Ukraine Demonstrates the Problem With Nuclear Power

by |March 14, 2022

Many of my colleagues have long maintained that the best solution to climate change is nuclear power. Free of greenhouse gases, nuclear is a powerful, scalable energy technology. We know how to build these plants, and most have operated without incident for many decades. However, nuclear power is also, as Barry Commoner once wrote, “A hell of a complicated way to boil water.”

While I am far from anti-technology, I have always had two problems with nuclear energy. First, the waste remains toxic for hundreds of thousands of years, and second, the possibility of radioactive release due to poor design, poor operation and maintenance, or from a terrorist attack. I had never thought that the military of a legitimate sovereign state would be demented enough to attack an operating nuclear power plant, but then Vladimir Putin proved me wrong. His twisted, evil attack on the people of Ukraine has also become an attack on the ecological well-being of all of Europe and a large chunk of his own country. Any species that can produce a Putin and give him an army cannot be trusted with the management of such a complex and potentially dangerous technology.

An NPR report by Geoff Brumfiel, Meredith Rizzo, Tien Le, Alyson Hurt, Tim Mak and Daniel Wood provided graphic detail about the Russian attack on the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine. According to their report:

“Last week’s assault by Russian forces on the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant was far more dangerous than initial assessments suggested, according to an analysis by NPR of video and photographs of the attack and its aftermath. A thorough review of a four-hour, 21-minute security camera video of the attack reveals that Russian forces repeatedly fired heavy weapons in the direction of the plant’s massive reactor buildings, which housed dangerous nuclear fuel. Photos show that an administrative building directly in front of the reactor complex was shredded by Russian fire. And a video from inside the plant shows damage and a possible Russian shell that landed less than 250 feet from the Unit 2 reactor building.”

As if attacking a functioning plant was not sufficient, Russia has also taken over the site of the no longer operating Chernobyl nuclear power plant. The Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident in 1986 spread radioactive materials throughout Europe and was one of the largest nuclear catastrophes in history. As reported by Tucker Reals of CBS News:

“Russian forces quickly seized the Chernobyl site after launching their invasion on February 24. Ukrainian officials have said the team of plant operators who ensure safe operations at the decommissioned facility have tried to continue carrying out their work, but under the orders of Russian troops and without being allowed to leave the compound at all… Asked on Thursday about concerns over safety at Chernobyl, U.S. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told the Senate Intelligence Committee that the U.S. “should be concerned, but we haven’t yet seen anything that takes us from concerned to ‘it’s a complete crisis.'” Matt Kroenig, who worked on both nuclear and Russia related issues under the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations, told CBS News senior investigative correspondent Catherine Herridge this week that Putin was weaponing Ukraine’s civilian nuclear facilities as part of a strategy to terrorize, and potentially to stage a major nuclear event.”

While the United States, Europe and many other nations are doing all they can to muster economic sanctions against Russia and send arms and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, Russia is in the third week of this relentless invasion. Their willingness to risk nuclear catastrophe is an indication of both Russia’s recklessness and their military inadequacy. Terrorizing civilians and threatening the ecological well-being of the planet is an unusual but sadly not unique strategy of homicidal maniacs serving as national leaders. We have seen it for many years with Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Now we see it in Russia. I do not believe that this is the last instance we will see of such lunacy.

Until we develop a form of nuclear power that does not produce dangerous waste and cannot be weaponized as we are now seeing in Ukraine, we should limit the use of this technology as much as possible. The origins of civilian nuclear energy in the “Atoms for Peace” initiative of the Eisenhower years was a contrived effort to change the image of nuclear technology from the terror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to something more benign: electricity that would be “too cheap to meter.” Nuclear energy proved to be a little more expensive than that. Nuclear technology was not ready for prime time in the 1950s and events in Ukraine indicate it is too dangerous today.

I do not underestimate the threat of climate change, but if I had to choose between a radioactive planet and a warm planet, I’d go with the warmth. Fortunately, we do not need to choose. Improved energy efficiency, and a generation-long transition to renewable energy, are achievable. The technological breakthroughs needed to decarbonize have started and I believe will pick up momentum. No technology will be free of environmental impacts, but I prefer the impacts that don’t last hundreds of thousands of years and are the type we can work on and reduce as technology develops.

We are highly dependent on energy for many aspects of modern life. Our food, homes, water supplies, waste management systems and transportation systems all require energy. These human systems can coexist with the natural world if we pay attention to the damage they cause and work to minimize that damage. The problem with nuclear power is that while the probability of damage is low, if the damage occurs, its impact can be massive. The lands surrounding Chernobyl and Fukushima have been damaged beyond cost-effective repair. As Russia’s evil and relentless attack on Ukraine continues, so too does the threat. According to the World Nuclear Association: “Ukraine is heavily dependent on nuclear energy — it has 15 reactors generating about half of its electricity.” A map of the nation’s nuclear power plants appears on the website of the World Nuclear Association. Some of the reactors are in the southern part of the nation others are in the west, areas that are now starting to come under Russian attack.

As we watch Russia bomb Ukrainian cities, and their residents are forced to live without sources of water, food, medicine, and energy, we see the fragility and interconnectedness of the technological systems that are central to our modern way of life. We are observing undeniable courage by ordinary people who have become extraordinary. They are getting by without the comforts we take for granted. But there are limits to what people can endure. Some of these limits are physical, some are psychological, and others come from the sheer toxicity and deadliness of the threats that are posed. Bombs, bullets, and missiles can end life powerfully and suddenly. Nuclear contamination can present itself suddenly or gradually over time. The technology we depend on needs to be resilient, reliable, and as safe as possible. Nuclear power fails those tests, as the war in this nuclear energy-dependent nation demonstrates. We are learning difficult lessons from this horrific and evil attack on Ukraine. The vulnerability of nuclear power to military attack is one of those lessons.


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Prof.Nickolas Themelis
8 months ago

The bombardment of a nuclear plant in Ukraine by the Russian army was a demented act, one of many they have perpetrated in this invasion and for which Russian leaders in the future will face Nurenberg-like trials. However, if the nuclear power plants were to be closed, as Germany is doing, the climate change would be accelerated.
The existential threat to humanity, as warned by the 1955 Russell-Einstein Manifesto, are the thousands of nuclear weapons and not the nuclear power plants. Putin has threatened to use his nuclear arsenal. Apparently, he told President Macron that one of his weapons could wipe out an entire country. “Après moi le deluge” ?

Nicholas Geary
Nicholas Geary
8 months ago

The benefits of modern life all come with some risks. I would have hoped that someone at a leading university’s climate school would have a more rational understanding of relative risk.

Deaths from coal power — millions.
Deaths from hydropower accidents — hundreds of thousands.
Deaths from nuclear power spent fuel — zero.

Can nuclear power plants be attacked? Yes. So can planes, trains, bridges, schools, stadiums, theaters, malls, restaurants, night clubs, concerts, parades, public gatherings, government buildings, skyscrapers, municipal water supplies, hospitals, chemical plants, refineries, fertilizer plants, grid transformers, hydropower dams, natural gas facilities, and if you are someone like Putin with a nuclear weapons arsenal, entire cities, but nobody thinks we should do away with all those things merely because they can be attacked.

“I am far from anti-technology”

Says the man who uses the “complicated” argument against nuclear power–as if complicated is always worse–nevermind how computers, electric cars, turbines, and most of modern medicine have displaced simpler technologies because they are better. Coal is a much simpler way to boil water than nuclear, but with coal power you also get vast ecological devastation, trillions in health costs, and millions of early deaths. James Hansen et al estimate nearly 2 million lives were saved by old nuclear power, compared to the forms of energy it displaced, in addition to hundreds of billions in health costs–something that’s always overlooked when anti-nukes trot out the snide “too cheap to meter” golden oldie.

“the waste remains toxic for hundreds of thousands of years”

Many of our modern toxic wastes will remain toxic forever. At least spent fuel is contained–unlike the many toxins we just dump into the environment by the millions of tons. And it’s only going to be around for that long if we don’t consume it, but multiple teams are already developing molten salt fast reactors to do exactly that. (One such team is in Schenectady.)

“The lands surrounding Chernobyl and Fukushima have been damaged beyond cost-effective repair.”

First, that argument would not apply to kinds of nuclear power which cannot have reactor explosions and meltdowns. And second, those areas have been rendered technically uninhabitable by humans (though humans do live there), but the same is true on a much larger scale for hydropower–with tens of million displaced. But whereas inundation wipes out the ecology of the submerged lands, Chernobyl effectively created a flourishing wildlife preserve, where even endangered species are making a comeback. And it seems strange to be using the cost-effectiveness argument against that–especially coming from a self-styled environmentalist and a critic of capitalism.

“Until we develop a form of nuclear power that does not produce dangerous waste and cannot be weaponized as we are now seeing in Ukraine, we should limit the use of this technology as much as possible.”

When ISIS took over the unstable Mosul Dam, potentially threatening more than a million lives, nobody considered that an argument against all forms of hydropower. But that same kind of reasoning usually gets a pass when anti-nukes use it. There are better ways possible for doing nuclear power than the old Soviet plants in Ukraine, but even so, Russia isn’t turning these power plants into makeshift radiological weapons. 1. That would convey no military advantage. 2. More likely it would solidify world opposition. 3. It would contaminate the breakaway republics Russia is supposedly there to protect. 4. It would contaminate Russian troops in Ukraine and Russia itself. 5. It would demonstrate a serious vulnerability of the Russian-designed VVER power plants that Russia is still trying to sell to other countries. And 6. Russia doesn’t need to turn these plants into makeshift weapons because Russia has an abundance of *actual weapons*. This is like urging women to limit their use of scarfs as much as possible because of the danger that invading soldiers could seize the scarfs and fashion them into slingshots. And when it comes to the threat from nuclear weapons in particular, I think it’s worth noting that civilian nuclear power plants have destroyed the core fuel for 20,000 nuclear warheads through the Megatons for Megawatts program. That’s more nuke warheads than exist in the world today–and those were warheads that were particularly at risk for getting loose. Does anyone think the world would have been a safer place if we hadn’t had the plants with which to destroy all that bomb fuel?

“I do not underestimate the threat of climate change, but if I had to choose between a radioactive planet and a warm planet, I’d go with the warmth.”

Says the radioactive man living on a radioactive planet. And if he seriously thinks the scale of the potential looming carbon catastrophes amount to “warmth”, that’s exactly what an underestimation looks like. And minimizing on that scale is something I’d more expect from a fossil fuel spokesman than someone supposedly connected to a “climate school”.

Alessio F.
Alessio F.
Reply to  Nicholas Geary
8 months ago

Describing Chernobyl as a “flourishing wildlife preserve” should win a prize for the most misleading definition ever used for anything.
The logic of: “Yes, our product is poisoning the world but let us do whatever we want and eventually we’ll come up with a way to suck it back out of the environment” is also debatable; coincidentally, it’s the same used for fossil fuels and carbon capture.

Nicholas Geary
Nicholas Geary
Reply to  Alessio F.
8 months ago

“Describing Chernobyl as a “flourishing wildlife preserve” should win a prize for the most misleading definition ever used for anything.”

I said it was effectively a wildlife preserve. It doesn’t have that official status, but the *effect* has been the same: “Once expected to become a wasteland, the Chernobyl area is now a nature reserve.” (Nature mag.) “wildlife is thriving” (National Geographic) “The world’s most unlikely nature reserve: Wildlife is thriving in Chernobyl” (Euronews) “Chernobyl Has Become an ‘Accidental Wildlife Sanctuary’ Thriving With Life” (Treehugger) “Chernobyl Wildlife Thriving as Scientists Find Exclusion Zone Full of Animals” (Newsweek)

The engangered Prezwalski horse population has more than quintupled there. Fox, wolf, bison, boar, and elk populations have boomed relative to pre-86 levels. Megafauna population numbers are up. Biodiversity has increased. The most common adjectives I see used to describe the wildlife transformation there are thriving, flourishing, and teeming. So do feel free to explain how my characterization of the prevailing view was in any way “misleading”.

“The logic of: “Yes, our product is poisoning the world but let us do whatever we want and eventually we’ll come up with a way to suck it back out of the environment” is also debatable”

That’s either completely irrelevant to what I said, or it is a triple-mischaracterization of it. I’ve seen no indication that nuclear power is “poisoning the world”, at no point have I argued that any industry, nuclear or otherwise, should be free to do whatever they want, and I said nothing about sucking any radionuclides out of the environment. (I even pointed out that spent fuel is already contained and not loose in the environment.)

Alessio F.
Alessio F.
Reply to  Nicholas Geary
8 months ago

Unfortunately, animals can’t use Geiger counters. That doesn’t mean that nuclear disasters are a boon for wildlife conservation or are to be taken lightly in any way. To be honest, I can hardly believe that somebody would argue that Chernobyl-like events are not so bad after all because unknowing animals are now free to roam there.

“[…] spent fuel is […] only going to be around for that long if we don’t consume it, but multiple teams are already developing molten salt fast reactors to do exactly that.” It’s the logic of “kicking the can down the road” that fossil fuels companies use for carbon capture, which basically means “let’s profit until, hopefully, we can find a better solution to store the hazardous byproduct of the process”. In other words, it’s asking for an act of faith. We’ve been reading that for years now, whether it’s reactors that use nuclear waste as fuel, carbon capture or nuclear fusion. Time’s up; let’s stick to what we know works.

Nicholas Geary
Nicholas Geary
Reply to  Alessio F.
8 months ago

“Unfortunately, animals can’t use Geiger counters. … I can hardly believe that somebody would argue that Chernobyl-like events are not so bad after all because unknowing animals are now free to roam there.”

The Chernobyl exclusion zone is not teeming with wildlife because, lacking Geiger counters, the poor animals (and plants and fungi) unwittingly blunder in from surrounding areas. It is a booming ecosystem because the species living there are breeding and thriving there. The zone has more wildlife density, more major megafauna, and more biodiversity than the surrounding areas, and animals which are rare and endangered elsewhere are rebounding there.

{“multiple teams are already developing molten salt fast reactors to [consume spent fuel].”}
“It’s the logic of ‘kicking the can down the road'”

Putting off the spent fuel issue to some indefinite future may have been the logic at one time, but the fact that teams are now actively working on this specifically means they are not putting it off.

“…that fossil fuels companies use for carbon capture,”

Same deal. The NET Power team has already built and run a demonstration-scale zero-emissions gas-fired power plant to show it works, and it took them only two years from groundbreaking to firing it up. Over the next three years, they are planning to build 4 full-scale power plants. By any reasonable standard, that’s a vigorous pace of development. There is nothing about that which could be fairly described as “kicking the can down the road”.

“which basically means “let’s profit until, hopefully, we can find a better solution to store the hazardous byproduct of the process”.”

If we had not developed old-tech nuclear when we did, the profits would have instead gone to coal and there would likely have been many hundreds of thousands of excess premature deaths from coal pollution. Those people got to live because we exchanged a large amount of that unconstrained deadly coal pollution for a tiny amount of well-contained nuclear “spent” fuel which has harmed no-one. By any measure, that’s an entirely reasonable trade. Factoring in the sickness and suffering avoided, as well as the hundreds of billions in associated health costs, and the billions of tonnes of carbon not released, I’d even call it a bargain.

“In other words, it’s asking for an act of faith.”

They will develop their demonstration reactors and then we will evaluate the reactors based on their actual performance. Faith isn’t required for any of that. That’s just the ordinary way technology development proceeds.

“We’ve been reading that for years now, whether it’s reactors that use nuclear waste as fuel, carbon capture or nuclear fusion. Time’s up; let’s stick to what we know works.”

Of the fast reactor projects in development, it looks like the molten salt teams have the best prospects for consuming our existing spent fuel stockpile. All of these teams have existed for less than ten years. The complaint in the article was “the waste remains toxic for hundreds of thousands of years”. You can try to declare “time’s up”, but based on what? The spent fuel isn’t going anywhere, it isn’t causing any actual health or environmental problems, there’s no urgency to do anything about it, and it’s not like there are other spent fuel options ready to go, so what is this supposed time limit? If it is nothing more than personal opinion or wishful thinking on your part, I think I can guess the exact number of reactor teams that will be convinced by that to halt their work, give up, and flush everything they’ve invested and accomplished so far.

Alessio F.
Alessio F.
Reply to  Nicholas Geary
8 months ago

Is wildlife also invulnerable against radioactive contamination? Let’s remember that the planet should remain inhabitable for humans, too. Honestly, when we’ve come to argue about the benefits of having large areas contaminated by nuclear waste, maybe it’s not that serious a debate after all.

Arguing about what could/should have been is also distracting, futile and beside the point. “Now” is what matters; and, now, such technologies are at least in an embryonic state and uneconomical. The best strategy is the one outlined by the IEA and others, i.e. investing massively in renewables, efficiency and adaptation, with minimal and progressively declining contribution from other sources (including nuclear, at least for the near future). No time for magic, hypothetical solutions or free market mumbo jumbo, if the goal is not going over 1.5 degrees. Assuming there is the political will to do it; but that’s a different matter.

Last edited 8 months ago by Alessio F.
James w
James w
Reply to  Alessio F.
6 months ago

The below websites on iea’s webpage differs considerably from declining contribution to nuclear power?

https://www.iea.org/reports/nuclear-power-in-a-clean-energy-system

https://www.iea.org/fuels-and-technologies/nuclear

Juri Hertel
Juri Hertel
8 months ago

” … if I had to choose between a radioactive planet and a warm planet, I’d go with the warmth.”

Well said.
The human instinct leaves the fuel rods where they are and confiscate the PV-panels:

https://uare.com.ua/en/

🙂

Yulia Mikhailova
Yulia Mikhailova
8 months ago

But then there is an example of Sweden – 40% of its energy comes from nuclear power plants, and they never had any accident. Can other countries just copy their system? Also, Fukushima is special case – having nuclear plants in places like Japan, with high risk of earthquakes and tsunamis is, indeed, a bad idea. In contrast, Germany has next to zero risk of such events.

Nickolas Themelis
Reply to  Yulia Mikhailova
8 months ago

Also, France derives 70% of its electricity from nuclear plants…….Both Sweden and France deal very well with nuclear waste. The US has a place to do it, Yucca Mountain, Nevada but “States Rightists” prevented it for no scientific reason

Jeff Izo
Jeff Izo
7 months ago

This is a straw man argument put out by folks that have no clue what they’re talking about, Did the fact Putin allegedly damaged Chernobyl lead to a nuclear catastrophe? If anything this shows nuclear power is less vulnerable. Shelling and attacks didn’t lead to any major issues and the reactors are still secure. The left and enviro greens in Germany caused this entire conflict. The simple fact is that renewables cannot replace coal and oil without being backed up by another fossil fuel source like natural gas. Germany’s dependence on natural gas undermined NATO and caused this entire mess and the potential for a nuclear conflict that has NOTHING to do with nuclear reactors. The background radiation of many parts of the world are higher then even the radiation released from the two worst nuclear accidents that were completely overblown. Their is no long term health detriment from low dose radiation and the minimal nuclear waste has never caused an issue. Unlike Coal that releases more radiation then any nuclear accident in history ever has. The left needs to decide whether Climate Change or their opposition to nuclear power is more important to them because we are never going to run higher population, higher growth nations on wind and solar. Not in the next century. The greens need to either put up or shut up because The logical people in the world are tired of listening to the lies about nuclear power.

Jeff Izo
Jeff Izo
7 months ago

And why did Chernobyl and Fukushima even happen? The Soviet Union built a cheap dangerous reactor that had no containment. The goal was to use the reactor for both power and uranium enrichment. State secrets kept operators from knowing an dangerous test could lead to a catastrophe. In the end their are higher levels of background radiation present in many parts of the world with no effect on people then what occurred in Ukraine 30 years after the accident. Fukushima was caused by a 1000 year event and a seawall that was not built high enough. Fukushima allegedly killed one person from radiation while 15000 people in Japan died from the Earthquake and Tsunami that was ignored by the press. While the seawall was an issue, the reactors in Japan survived remarkably well considering Japan suffered the 4th largest earthquake in recorded history! And those reactors in Japan were older water cooled reactors. New designs today use different cooling methods that make them even less vulnerable. We learned after Hiroshima and Nagasaki that most of the deaths occurred from the blast. A majority of survivors who were exposed to radiation lived long and normal lives in the aftermath. If Climate Change is your concern, you cannot even put a dent in emissions without nuclear reactors. Otherwise, I have zero desire to even listen to arguments about an emission free future using only renewables. If that is the plan, we might as well do nothing about Climate Change!

Jeff Izo
Jeff Izo
7 months ago

All of the concerns about radiation are based on the linear threshold hypotheses that has shown zero evidence of holding up after decades of research. Yes, a large dose of radiation will kill a human, but the equivalent dose over long periods of time do not have the same effects on people as the large dose all at once. Either way, the waste of nuclear reactors is contained and could fit on an NFL football stadium. The radiation with a long half life is less radioactive then the waste with a short half life. That means the waste takes longer to decay, but gives off very little radiation while it decays. And historically we’ve been able to store it safely for decades. It just amazes me that the environmental left keeps dying on this cross. Until you folks start taking reasonable and realistic support for reliable and proven energy tech like nuclear, no one will take any of you seriously when you lecture is about Climate Change, If you want to replace combustion vehicles with electric cars, the perfect source for that power comes from nuclear reactors. Otherwise, stop wasting our time with your climate propaganda!

Thomas Miller
Thomas Miller
5 months ago

As to “Until we develop a form of nuclear power that does not produce dangerous waste and cannot be weaponized”… we’ve had such tech for decades and it is only S-L-O-W-L-Y becoming known across the world as limited thinking and protective egos hindered its many, many benefits.
As I so often share on this subject:

On the nuclear note- it is not that we shouldn’t pursue nuclear, it’s that what we have stems from weapons research and not from what would be most beneficial for power and other process by-products.
Consequence-free energy is attainable now; both misguided environmental and change-averse industry interests have shelved it. 
Look into Thorium LFTR reactors on YouTube for more complete presentations by Sorensen. This will get you started:
https://youtu.be/uK367T7h6ZY

The concern and next level thinking has to then deal with the consequences and change brought about by consequence-free energy, were it given a chance to flourish…