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Opinion ‘15 new Chernobyls’: A survivor’s fears about Putin’s war

A rescue worker puts up a caution flag in front of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in November 2006. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)
6 min

On April 26, 1986, Serhii Plokhy and his family were living near Ukraine’s Dnieper River downstream from the Chernobyl nuclear plant. In the summer months following the catastrophic explosion and meltdown there, he kept his two small children indoors, uncertain of what invisible horrors might be circulating in the air around them. Now Plokhy, a professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard — and author of “Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe” and the forthcoming “Atoms and Ashes: A Global History of Nuclear Disasters” — worries about history repeating itself.

As fighting rages around Chernobyl and some of Ukraine’s 15 other reactors, Plokhy and I spoke by Zoom this week to discuss the threat of nuclear disaster created by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Meghan Kruger: Who is in charge of Chernobyl now? Do we know?

Serhii Plokhy: Now, it’s under the control of the Russian military. The Ukrainians are saying they’ve kept the original plant personnel there, that they’re hostage, that there was supposed to be a shift change but it didn’t take place. People can’t communicate with their families, they’re not able to get in touch with their superiors in Kyiv.

Kruger: How problematic is it to have people who are not familiar with a specific nuclear plant running it? Can Russia just supply its own staff?

Plokhy: Local knowledge is extremely important. You have to know what state things are in — you can’t just parachute somebody in. And that is especially true for the new confinement system [a multibillion-dollar hangar installed in 2016 to replace the failing “sarcophagus” that previously enclosed the damaged plant]. It’s a new technology; you have to know what you’re doing.

Kruger: How likely is it that fighting around Chernobyl could cause an accident? Or is the greater risk from someone working at the plant who doesn’t know what he’s doing?

Plokhy: The danger comes from military actions around that area. Missiles don’t necessarily fly in the direction that people want them to fly. Even if no one wants to aim in the direction of the reactors, there are large storages of nuclear fuel there. That might do more damage. And the Ukrainians [claim they are] intercepting Russian missiles. Who can control where the wreckage goes? It’s a war zone.

Kruger: Are there other radiological dangers besides Chernobyl people should worry about?

Plokhy: People should be alarmed. At the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant, there are six reactors; it’s one of the largest plants in Europe. It’s exactly on the way for the Russian troops moving from Crimea northward. The reports are that the Russian troops are near the gates of the town where the plant is located — Enerhodar.

The situation we have today is: The Russian plan was about blitzkrieg, winning the war within one or two days. But that didn’t happen; they turned out to be much less effective in fighting the Ukrainian military than they assumed. They’re now shelling the city of Kharkiv, in eastern Ukraine, and also in residential areas. The big concern is that the Russians will become much more indiscriminate in what they’re doing. … That’s when you get into the really morbid outcomes. The war has to be ended now, if only to avoid the threat of 15 new Chernobyls.

Kruger: How hard is it to trigger a cataclysmic accident at a nuclear plant today? Are there protections in place now that could help prevent a Chernobyl-type catastrophe?

Plokhy: You don’t need a bomb dropped on a nuclear facility to have a major disaster. Chernobyl shows that the combination of design issues and mistakes can explode a nuclear plant under peaceful conditions. Fukushima showed that the only thing needed for a meltdown is to cut off electricity. You don’t need planes, you don’t need bombs — just cut off electricity, which can happen as a result of military action, without anyone wanting to damage a nuclear power plant. And then you’ll get Fukushima. They have backup generators, but the question is, how long can those last? War and nuclear — this is not the right combination.

Kruger: If there were to be a nuclear accident, what would the response look like?

Plokhy: Well, the International Atomic Energy Agency will express its concern. It’s unlikely they would actually condemn Russia; the agency can’t even spell or pronounce the word “Russia,” like any other agency that depends on a paycheck from China or Russia. Then they’ll try to talk to the warring sides about what to do.

I have no doubt that in the end it will end up in the hands of the international community. I don’t expect in this case, the aggressor, the Russians, to take responsibility.

And every new major accident, as a rule, happens as a result of a new combination of circumstances. So people are trying to learn from past mistakes, and thank God there is not much repetition. But every new accident brings in a new scenario that no one ever thought about.

Kruger: Do you think that would change the nature of the war itself? Would a nuclear disaster draw in powers that have been on the sidelines so far, especially in Western Europe?

Plokhy: Anything can happen, but I don’t think that would.

Kruger: You lived through Chernobyl. What are Ukrainians living around these reactors going through right now?

Plokhy: In terms of what you experience, it might be much easier to understand now than it was two years ago, before the pandemic. In both cases, whether it’s radiation or the coronavirus, you’re dealing with an invisible enemy. We don’t see it; we don’t know whether we’re carrying it; we don’t know whether it already affects us. That’s the feeling.

[Radiation] is even more scary. … The wave of thyroid cancer, for example, came five, 10, 15 years after the [Chernobyl] explosion. So just think about covid that hits you 10 years from now, and there’s no vaccine. Try to live for the next 10 years and focus on something else.