As if the latest war isn’t enough, today’s news has deepened an already anxious global sense of uncertainty for the future.
Russian shelling caused fires in the complex of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station in the early hours of this morning. Ukrainian authorities reported the fire at a training building to be under control and the reactors not at risk, with normal background radiation recorded. The city in which it sits, Enerhodar, has a population of 53,000.
Russia says the explosion was caused by Ukrainian forces, Ukraine blames the Russian military. In the fog of war it’s never easy to know who or what to believe. But every war breaks all rules, always.
There were 15 nuclear reactor sites operating in Ukraine at the start of Putin’s invasion in February 2022. Russian troops took over the site of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant early in the invasion, with serious concerns expressed about the management of the fourth reactor there which is still in melt-down following the explosion in 1988.
The Zaporizhzhia nuclear site has 6 reactors and is the largest in Europe, brought on-line in the 1980’s and possibly highly vulnerable as past it’s sell-by date. Thankfully, sensibly, at the point of Russian military take-over, operators had shut down five of its six reactors. Yesterday there was heavy shelling of the nuclear power plant, finally resulting in fire inside the complex.
This is the closest humanity has approached, at least in the twenty-first century, to nuclear power becoming integral to warfare and a weapon of mass destruction. If a nuclear core is damaged, the explosion will contaminate millions of people with long term health and environmental impacts as experienced in the accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima.
It is not that a reactor has to suffer a direct hit or even be targetted. Damage to the infrastructure for operating a nuclear reactor can cause follow-on catastrophe. Nuclear reactors require electricity to run the pumps that supply coolant to stop the plant over-heating. At Fukushima, the diesel-electric generators were housed beneath the ground in an act of engineering idiocy, and were flooded during the tsunami, stopping the pumps and causing the reactors to overheat and explode. They continue to melt down and emit deadly levels of radiation into the air and across the Pacific Ocean, measurable on the West Coast of of the USA.
The scale of nuclear catastrophe, often talked-down, is wholly overwhelming when faced.
Ukraine’s power stations are being prepared for war. That means shut downs, where the temperature inside the reactor can lower to a point where a meltdown cannot take place. The reactors still require careful management, and a engineers have to remain in place during and after military bombardment. Soldiers certainly are ill-equipped to run a nuclear site.
Shut down ends the production of electricity. Shutting down the reactors at Zaporizhzhia has been the single safe action to be taken. The consequence for a country reliant upon nuclear power means millions without electricity and often without water and supplies, the loss of electricity making other utilities unable to function, such as water supplies which require pumping. When fully operational, Zaporizhzhia supplies one-fifth of Ukrainian homes, four million households, with electricity. Well, it used to.
The Ukrainian government has accused Russia of “nuclear terrorism”, a concept central to the analysis by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament that nuclear power should be ended, replaced with renewables. Ukraine has called for a 30km no-war zone around each of the countries nuclear plants – an exclusion zone to stop any military actions or infrastructure.
The question is asked – what can be done to prevent an almost inevitable nuclear catastrophe in this war? Unpalatable to some politicians in the USA and Europe, the reality is that China holds the greatest influence, as a critic but not outright opponent of Russia, and as the largest trading partner of Ukraine after the European Union.
We may well be reliant upon China to ensure President Putin restrains his forces from attacking nuclear plants. The creation of large parts of the Ukraine as a dead-zone, its wheat inedible and environment unfit for human habitation, would cause long-term suffering to peoples far away from the country itself. Nuclear fallout and radiation does not recognise humanity’s politically constructed national borders. Wheat scarcity of itself would cause basic food prices to soar worldwide.
But the first and foremost criticism by we, the anti-nuke brigade, long chastised and derided, holds true. War is never surgical nor does it run to plan – ask any general of any side.
The human suffering of so-called “collateral damage”, in other words, civilian casualties – in Afghanistan, Libya or Bosnia & Serbia, each of which a war with NATO involvement, or, for balance, in Georgia at the hands of Russian forces – proved to the world that “precision bombing” and “surgical strikes” are false propaganda to appease the conscience of the outside world. Civil society dies in large numbers.
There can be no suggestion, it follows, that nuclear power plants can be rendered safe during war. Not only can guided missiles fly off-target, but the sites themselves can become targets for territorial control. The aggressor may use a contaminated or demilitarised zone to control a region, or a defender may consider the same option rather than lose – war is war. Indeed, the losing-side may well resort to mutual destruction, or blame their explosions on the other side.
And that’s where nuclear weapons enter the discussion. Both sides – have no illusions, both East and West – have stated there readiness to use “tactical nuclear weapons”. Both Russia and NATO have, independent of each other, the ability to extinguish all life on earth many times over by use of their nuclear arsenals. Amongst these illegal weapons of mass destruction sit nuclear bombs for use on the battlefield, their explosions limited to a smaller circumference than the inter-continental ballistic missiles (about the size of the Hiroshima bomb).
The great immediate danger is the fallacy, believed by most politicians, that current technology offers the ability to use these battlefield “low-yield” nuclear bombs without initiating outright nuclear war. Should there be a rise in radiation levels, through explosions at nuclear power plants (or extensive use of uranium tipped missiles as in Iraq), the use of a nuclear field-weapon or two may be able to be disguised (at least for a while, until any independent scientist can identify the origin of the unique isotopes).
Nuclear weapons become a tactical consideration for beleaguered generals.
Of course, as documented by the military themselves, the modern technology that is used to ensure inter-continental nuclear weapons are on constant alert is reliant on the algorithms and automatic triggers similar to those that trigger adverts on your mobile phone applications. One sniff of nuclear use by one side ensures immediate and automated counter by the other – the dynamic of nuclear Armageddon. There is no time to think before action if you want to save “your side”.
So we are now at the most dangerous point in human and indeed environmental history.
What is to be done? There is substantial evidence that the core reason politicians have not used nuclear weapons against populations since Nagasaki in 1945 is public opinion. In more than 75 years, the countless wars having seen more bombs dropped than in the first and second world wars combined, with an average of one million humans being killed each year in warfare, nuclear weapons have stayed siloed. Warmongers fear mass opposition and potential uprisings against them should they “go too far” (a moveable scale of acceptable atrocities in itself).
We are all, the vast majority of us, sickened and opposed in mind and heart by the potential of nuclear war. That moral as well as physical horror lies mostly dormant but rumbling inside each of us. But now it is time for the passive objections to end. It is time to shout out loud against nuclear war. The brave activists in Russia are protesting to Stop the War despite painful incarceration and threats to life. They deserve everyone’s support.
But more, they need to see us, all of us, everywhere, on the streets where we are, shouting-out against this and all imperialist war, and especially, no more nuclear weapons be they nuclear bombs or nuclear power plants. Here at home, the current push by UK government for a new generation of nuclear power plants, including Small Modular Reactors to be housed in and around towns and communities, must be stopped.
Join the protests.