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Radiation without Borders

Radiation without Borders

A Ukrainian nuclear scientist sounds the alarm about Russia's unhealthy interest in Ukraine's four active nuclear power plants.

Valerii Pugatch

As a nuclear scientist in Ukraine who leads the High Energy Physics Department at the Institute for Nuclear Research NAS Ukraine, I have devoted my life to researching radiation. You can see here that I have published frequently in collaboration with physicists all over the world. I am a member of the Large Hadron Collider beauty collaboration in CERN and the Compressed Baryonic Matter experiment in Darmstadt, where we are trying to unravel mysteries of the Universe.

Here I must focus on this danger of a nuclear disaster. The war Russia is waging against Ukraine makes this threat increasingly likely.

I was born and raised in a village in the Donbas area, so I am well aware of the ongoing war since 2014. On February 24 of this year, the war touched me for the second time, reaching me in Kyiv. I have written the following from Kyiv region where I am with my wife. We are lucky to be alive. However, at least two of my colleagues have died in Kharkiv from Russian shelling of the city. I can hear explosions close by where I am right now. This goes on every single day.

It’s clear that our enemies have no restrictions, moral or otherwise. They are killing civilians, destroying homes and university buildings. But they have also repeatedly fired on the nuclear power plant near Zaporizhzhia.

I’m sure many of you watched the HBO Chernobyl series. Horrors await. While contemporary pressurized water reactors—unlike the graphite-moderated reactor that there used to be in Chernobyl—are less prone to catastrophic accidents, the threat of a nuclear disaster, similar to that of Chernobyl—or even bigger—is all too possible under current conditions. This is because nuclear power plants are designed to be operated by professionals, and if such plants receive in the slightest amount of damage, this could lead to overheating and, subsequently, an explosion. Even my minimal damage could impact the flow of water that does the job of cooling the reactor.

Alternatively, if the automatic control system is damaged, and if the rods with uranium are inserted too deep into the core of a nuclear reactor, this could lead to an uncontrollable nuclear process. In 1986, I took part in the work of the state commission of monitoring radiation, as a part of the liquidation of the consequences of the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe.

Ukraine has four active nuclear power plants. One of them has already been under Russian attack; even when as fire broke out, the Russians blocked firefighters. A catastrophe was narrowly avoided. Oleksiy Arestovych, an advisor of the head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, has reported that Russians have their sites on other plants.

Russians are expressing an unhealthy interest in power plants. Given how Russian forces are regularly committing war crimes in Ukraine every day, they might be resigned to the fact that a tribunal at The Hague awaits them. One wonders. Do they care, or will they use radiation in desperation?

Our Western partners must do everything they can to stop this war. A nuclear disaster would affect many in Europe. We must widen our lens and see behind the current barbarism. Even darker and more dangerous moments may await us. Weigh the costs and risks of a no-fly zone and greater involvement. But consider also carefully the costs of caution and inaction. Don’t let the effects of this ghastly war spread.

Valerii Pugatch, a corresponding member of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) of Ukraine, is a nuclear scientist and head of the High Energy Physics Department at the NAS’ Institute for Nuclear Research.

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Jeffrey Gedmin, Francis Fukuyama, and the American Purpose team