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'Nuclear terrorism': Radiation isn't Ukraine's only environmental threat as war with Russia continues

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 4/17/2022 Renee Hickman, USA TODAY
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When the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, Narhiza Shkrobotko was living in Orikhiv, a small city about 100 miles northwest of Mariupol. One night early in the war as shells fell in the region, the journalist and activist saw out her window a flash of a bright light. 

Living about 70 miles from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, she feared the worst.

"I was very scared that it was an explosion at the nuclear power plant," said Shkrobotko, 22. "I immediately started trying to connect to the internet to find out if there was a danger."

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Though that light did not signal the disaster she feared, more danger was to come.

Russian troops shelled the plant, and reports emerged March 3 that it had caught on fire amid the fighting. Russian forces gained control of the area and occupy it under the management of the Russian energy company Rosatom. The situation remains precarious.

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The violence at the Zaporizhzhia plant reminded the world of the potential environmental nightmares in Ukraine – a country that suffered history’s worst nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in 1986.

Radiation is far from the only environmental problem facing Ukraine as it approaches a third month of war. 

The Russian invasion threatens environmentally fragile sites throughout the nation, which served as an industrial center dating back to the Soviet Union.

Military action at Ukraine's 15 nuclear reactors, chemical plants, mines or other manufacturing facilities could lead to another environmental catastrophe, said Kristina Hook, a professor of conflict management at Kennesaw State University who studies warfare's impact on the environment.

The Pridniprovskiy Chemical Plant outside Dnipro, a riverport town of nearly a million people, once produced half the yellowcake uranium used in the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal, Hook said. Mostly abandoned, the site contains 40 million tons of radioactive waste – 15 times more than what remains in Chernobyl. 

“The concern here is that a large quantity of waste could spill into the Dnipro waterway and down into the Black Sea,” Hook said, putting the entire European continent at risk.   

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The Donbas example

To understand the environmental hazards facing Ukraine, one need only look to its eastern Donbas region, invaded in 2014 by Russia.

The Donbas region, which takes its name from the abbreviation of the Donets Coal Basin, contains more than 900 active and inactive coal mines, according to Hook. When the Soviet Union fell apart in the early 1990s and the region ceased to be a major economic hub, many mines were abandoned and flooded with toxic groundwater. 

Kristina Hook, professor of conflict management at Kennesaw State University, says an environmental disaster in Ukraine could threaten all of Europe. © Submitted Kristina Hook, professor of conflict management at Kennesaw State University, says an environmental disaster in Ukraine could threaten all of Europe.

The only way to keep the tainted water from polluting the water supply is to pump it out. Since Russian-backed separatists occupied many parts of the region, environmental monitoring agencies largely have been unable to assess what, if any, measures ensure the water is safe. 

Hook and fellow researcher Andrew Marcantonio found that critical infrastructure systems such as wastewater processing and trash removal were targeted and destroyed when Russians invaded the region in 2014, further disrupting systems designed to protect water from contamination.

As in the earlier war, Russia shows a willingness to threaten environmental calamity as a means to control the population. 

The seizure of Chernobyl and the Zaporizhzhia plants are acts of "nuclear terrorism," said Oleh Savytskyi, a policy and energy expert at the Ukrainian Climate Network and a board member of EcoAction, a nongovernmental organization.

"It is certainly a kind of terrorist activity," said Iryna Stavchuk, Ukraine's deputy minister of environmental protection and natural resources. The Russian army is "using these horrible risks as a means to create pressure on Ukraine." 

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Long-term damages

Even if the reactors are unscathed and Ukraine maintains its independence, officials worry what postwar environmental legacy will remain. 

Leaks and damage to facilities containing toxic substances add to the terror Ukrainian civilians face as they try to escape danger and violence

In February, Russian bombs hit airfields and an oil depot in Vasylkiv, near the capital of Kyiv, according to the town's mayor, who warned of toxic fumes flooding the air. 

On March 21, officials told residents of Novoselytsya in the Sumy region of northeastern Ukraine to stay inside after an ammonia leak at a chemical plant that produced fertilizers. 

In Hook's research, she detailed the way even domestic structures can present danger when shelled. In Irpin, homes that caught fire after being bombed by Russian troops probably would emit asbestos and particulate matter. 

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Short- and long-term health consequences may result. 

"For a young, healthy person, even a high dosage rate wouldn’t constitute an immediate risk, although as they age, they might be at an increased risk of cancer respiratory issues," Hook and Marcantonio wrote in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, noting that young children with asthma or other chronic respiratory problems could have problems right away. 

Stavchuk knows well the long-term health risks of damage to Ukraine's chemical and nuclear facilities. She was a child at the time of the Chernobyl disaster and said her generation has been haunted by the fallout. 

"As a nation, as people who live close to Chernobyl, we have these (health) problems, and many people of my age have thyroid cancer," she said. "It's quite a common disease. So these impacts are felt for many, many years." 

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The future threats

Improvements to reduce toxic exposures have come to a halt.

Before the war, Savytskyi said, Ukraine was making progress toward environmental reforms. The country implemented regulations, he said, to clean and modernize industries and meet standards set by trade agreements with the European Union. 

"The work that we were doing for the last eight years is unable to proceed because of this aggression," Savytskyi said. 

When the rebuilding of Ukraine begins, mitigating the environmental damage caused by war must be a priority, Hook said. People must be able to safely drink the water, breathe the air and farm crops. 

"I think we need to be realistic that environmental redress is only going to happen in a meaningful way when the Ukrainian state is back in control of these (environmentally fragile) sites," she said.

Picking up where the country left off before the war will be challenging, Stavchuk said.

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"I don't know how to work with it," she said on a call from Lviv after fleeing her home in Kyiv. "Because even if the war is over, we have so many tasks of just rebuilding the country."

Evacuated to western Ukraine, Shkrobotka, the journalist, said she's not thinking about the environmental aftereffects of the war – not yet. 

Though she is farther from the most intense fighting, she said she still can't sleep properly. She worries about relatives who remain in cities under siege.

"This time feels like one horrible, exhausting day during which I constantly check the news, check friends and family, bring food and hot water to the checkpoint of our military and constantly thank the boys and girls who protect me and my family for every minute of our life," she said.

Shkrobotka said the war's damage to the environment, like so much else in her country, will be unavoidable. "I hope that after our victories, we will be able to cope with all the consequences and maybe even improve the situation," she said.

Renee Hickman is a reporter at the Wausau Daily Herald, part of the USA TODAY Network. She was a U.S. Fulbright grantee in Ukraine in 2018-2019.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Nuclear terrorism': Radiation isn't Ukraine's only environmental threat as war with Russia continues

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