Why Russian agression is the problem, not nuclear power

March 5, 2022

There has been much discussion in the news over the last few days about the problems posed by the Russians attacking the Zaporozhye Nuclear Power plant in the Ukraine. There has also been a great deal of misinformation on that subject. Unsurprisingly, most of the misinformation vastly exaggerates the risks posed by possible malevolence directed at the plant.  Even President Zelenskyy made hyperbolic statements about the prospects for disaster, should the Russians bomb the plant. 

Those of us who understand the enormous benefits of nuclear energy can’t emphasize enough that the risk of getting the wrong information about what the implications are is worse than the actual physical risks from the plant.  Which is to say that misinformation in the case of nuclear can frighten people away from nuclear power more broadly, such that people around the world could sabotage our own abiltiy to use clean energy and address climate change which is urgently threatening to doom humanity to a substantially hotter planet and an ever-worsening cascade of impacts from out of control extreme weather. Thus, getting information about this very important remedy to climate change from objective and expert sources is of utmost importance.

We are gathering authoritative sources as they emerge but for now, the main points to remember are as follows:

  1. Russian forces attacking/occupying of Chernobyl, Zaporozhye, and other Ukrainian nuclear plants has not resulted in the new release of any amounts of radioactive material.
  2. The Russian army has no intentions of damaging these or other nuclear plants or causing an accident or meltdown that would result in a large-scale release. It would be both counter-productive and insane for them to do so. Their aim is to occupy and control the nuclear plants, which provide a substantial portion of Ukraine’s power, and to force them offline (or threaten to do so).
  3. The risk of a major release due to accidental damage (resulting from efforts to take a plant) is very remote, given that the plants were designed to withstand a direct hit from an airplane.
  4. These plants are much safer and are much more contained than was the plant at Chernobyl. If because of bombing or other military efforts the power to the plant was cut preventing them from getting power to the cooling system, (itself, an exceedingly unlikely possibility, since there are multiple back-up power systems), and meltdown was to occur, the actual damage would be to the reactor core and not to people. In all cases of melt-downs, these actually caused no deaths most of the time and exceptionally few direct deaths even in the case of Chernobyl. What limited radiation might be released from a well-contained reactor like Zaporozhye is vastly less than that from Chernobyl, which had no containment, and thus would likely have no or limited public health impact.
  5. The deaths, injuries, infrastructure and asset damage, not to mention the loss of human rights being inflicted on the Ukrainian population is the largest and most significant risk from the war. The loss of electric power because of Russian control of the nuclear power plant in the middle of winter and reduction of that energy could very potentially cause additional deaths from people dying of hypothermia when they get too cold, are vastly greater than any risks or potential impacts from the unlikely prospect that Russia’s efforts to take control of the nuclear power plants is because they want to cause a melt-down to occur.
  6. Finally, the notion that nuclear plants pose a uniquely large mortality risks in these regards is false.  In fact, the Russian taking over or bombing natural gas plants, LNG terminals, petroleum refineries, chemical fertilizer facilities, hydropower dams and all of those kinds of industrial energy sites pose significantly worse mortality risks to area populations.
  7. The uniquely frightening prospect of radiation causes people and press to focus exceptional attention on nuclear power. As a consequence, more deaths have been attributed to hysterical evacuations that directly caused heart attacks, accidents, loss of medical treatment and other unncessary deaths, than have ever been caused by the small amount of radiation from a power plant melt-down. Press reporting of nuclear accidents and the deaths that will occur from radiation have always been wildly over-stated compared to their actual impacts.  Because radiation is invisible and not well-understood, those who oppose nuclear tend to use this fear liberally to generate outsized proportion of press attention to create irrational public fear.  This fear, which is very difficult to argue against and to prove is irrational, hurts the public because it makes people oppose nuclear from an emotional basis and make them think that use of fossil fuels is not as bad, when in fact, it is exceedingly worse from a mortality and a climate basis.

Here are some immediate responses and sources from trusted experts that we recommend you look at:

JAMES CONCA – In Stop Worrying About Chernobyl – It’s The Russian Invasion That’s Deadly in Forbes, March 4, 2022, wrote:   “We should be greatly concerned about the fate of these reactors, but the general level of that concern is not warranted by the potential for harm. Chernobyl is the case in point. The only thing coming out of Chernobyl that will kill anyone are bullets from Russian guns. Many more people have already died from the Russian invasion than ever died from the Chernobyl accident in 1986, and many more people have evacuated and fled than ever did after Chernobyl.”

JESSE JENKINS – Tweeting on Mar. 3rd, @JesseJenkins discusses Ukraine’s power situation, and the impact of nuclear plant’s going offline: “Forcing shutdown of Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station, Ukraine’s largest power plant w/6 reactors, 5,700 MW total, responsible for ~20-25 of the country’s electricity during peacetime. Presumably this will leave Kyiv without power now.  |  And here is the weather in Kyiv for the next week. Freezing temps as millions of people across Ukraine are likely now without power. Let’s not be mistaken: forcing Ukraine’s power plants offline WILL kill civilians.  |  Important: 3 of the reactors were already offline so this was loss of about 2,850 MW not 5,700. But that is still about 12% of Ukraine’s peacetime electricity use, or enough electricity for 6-7 million average European dwellings. https://twitter.com/james_acton32/status/1499541219424317443 h/t @bcshaffer

MARK NELSON @EnergyBants and below on a Bloomberg broadcast.