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InterviewHit to nuclear reactor core means a 2nd Chernobyl - or worse

Radiation expert: Ukraine war could pose greater nuclear threat than Chernobyl

Radiation countermeasures expert Dr. Alla Shapiro, a Chernobyl first responder, says war conditions make it harder to save lives in event of attack on nuclear power plant

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

  • A worker wearing a protective overall and mask is seen amid boxes full with contaminated vegetables on the landfill in Berlin-Wannsee on May 9, 1986. Vegetables with low radiation were being stored at this landfill following a decision of the local authorities in Berlin which banned the sale of contaminated leafy vegetables due to the recent nuclear accident in Chernobyl, Soviet Union. (AP Photo/Rainer Klostermeier/str)
    A worker wearing a protective overall and mask is seen amid boxes full with contaminated vegetables on the landfill in Berlin-Wannsee on May 9, 1986. Vegetables with low radiation were being stored at this landfill following a decision of the local authorities in Berlin which banned the sale of contaminated leafy vegetables due to the recent nuclear accident in Chernobyl, Soviet Union. (AP Photo/Rainer Klostermeier/str)
  • An aerial view of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the site of the world's worst nuclear accident, is seen two to three days after the April 26, 1986, explosion. In front of the chimney is the destroyed 4th reactor.   (AP Photo)
    An aerial view of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the site of the world's worst nuclear accident, is seen two to three days after the April 26, 1986, explosion. In front of the chimney is the destroyed 4th reactor. (AP Photo)
  • Workers who constructed the base for a cement sarcophagus to cover Chernobyl's exploded reactor four pose, in front of the still-exposed destroyed reactor building, with a poster reading: 'We carried out the mission ordered by the government.' (AP Photo/ Volodymyr Repik)
    Workers who constructed the base for a cement sarcophagus to cover Chernobyl's exploded reactor four pose, in front of the still-exposed destroyed reactor building, with a poster reading: 'We carried out the mission ordered by the government.' (AP Photo/ Volodymyr Repik)
  • In this March 23, 2016, photo, a worker checks the radiation level on barrels in a storage of nuclear waste taken from the 4th unit destroyed by explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, Chernobyl, Ukraine. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, File)
    In this March 23, 2016, photo, a worker checks the radiation level on barrels in a storage of nuclear waste taken from the 4th unit destroyed by explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, Chernobyl, Ukraine. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, File)
  • Dr. Alla Shapiro, April 2021 (Olga Shapiro)
    Dr. Alla Shapiro, April 2021 (Olga Shapiro)

Dr. Alla Shapiro was a first responder at Chernobyl, the world’s worst nuclear disaster. The accident at one of the reactors at the Ukrainian nuclear power plant in 1986 put 400 times more radioactive material into the earth’s atmosphere than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

A pediatric hematologist and expert on the medical effects of nuclear radiation, Shapiro developed medical countermeasures to radiation at the FDA for 20 years. In conversation with The Times of Israel, she warns that the current war in Ukraine could potentially pose a greater threat than Chernobyl. A shelling or missile attack on the core of one or more of the 15 reactors at Ukraine’s four active nuclear power plants could spell wide-scale catastrophe.

“We don’t know how much radiation would actually be released. The destruction of a reactor’s core could be a second Chernobyl, or it could be an exacerbation of the Chernobyl scenario,” Shapiro said.

“We wouldn’t just see acute radiation syndrome and radiation burns. If a reactor is hit, people will suffer from radiation and thermal burns,” Shapiro said.

On February 24, Russia invaded Ukraine and seized the defunct Chernobyl plant. On Wednesday, the International Atomic Energy Agency chief Rafael Grossi stated “that remote data transmission from safeguards monitoring systems installed at the Chernobyl NPP had been lost,” according to an AFP report.

Shapiro recounted in her memoir, “Doctor on Call: Chernobyl Responder, Jewish Refugee, Radiation Expert,” how the Ukrainian medical community was not prepared to deal with the Chernobyl accident. As a young doctor in Kyiv at the time, she was provided no guidance for how to treat the children exposed to radiation who were streaming into her hospital.

Today, the medical knowledge exists and protocols and countermeasures have been put in place. The problem is that war conditions would make it difficult to implement them if needed.

Dr. Alla Shapiro, April 2021 (Olga Shapiro)

Some speculate that Russian president Putin is ordering strikes on the grounds of Ukrainian nuclear power plants as a means of “making a nuclear threat without making a nuclear threat.” Regardless, Russia’s strategy does appears to include gaining control over Ukraine’s power supply, thereby cutting off electricity to homes and industry as a means of subduing the enemy.

On February 24, the Russian army took Chernobyl, which is inactive but still manned by some 200 technical staff. On March 3, it captured Zaporizhzhia in southeastern Ukraine, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe.  Zaporizhzhia is responsible for one-fifth of Ukraine’s annual electricity production, with nuclear power accounting for about half of Ukraine’s overall energy mix.

Fires broke out at Zaporizhzhia following heavy shelling by the Russians. Fortunately it was only an administration building that was hit, and the reactors and other critical parts of the plant remained unharmed and fully operational. No radiation leakage was detected.

This image made from a video released by Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant shows a bright flaring object landing on the grounds of the nuclear plant in Enerhodar, Ukraine, on March 4, 2022. (Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant via AP)

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) stated it has received reports of artillery shells damaging a research nuclear reactor at an institution of higher learning near Kharkiv on Sunday with no “radiological consequence.”

The Russians are now reportedly advancing on the South Ukraine nuclear power plant in Yuzhnoukrainsk, which is 120 km (75 miles) north of the port city of Mikolaiv.

Upon hearing of the attack on Zaporizhzhia , Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky appealed to Western leaders and to the IAEA to help ensure that a nuclear disaster does not occur.

“If there is an explosion – that’s the end for everyone. The end for Europe. The evacuation of Europe,” Zelensky warned.

“Only urgent action by Europe can stop the Russian troops. Do not allow the death of Europe from a catastrophe at a nuclear power station,” he said.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky in a video address posted to Facebook, on March 4, 2022. (Screenshot)

Shapiro said that, indeed, there is no telling how far and in which directions radiation would extend. It would depend on wind and rain conditions. Radiation from Chernobyl reached large parts of northern and central Europe, even landing as far as Ireland — and it was detectable for many years.

Although critical lessons were learned after the Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accidents, construction designs for newer nuclear power plants, and redesigns for older ones, did not necessarily have an all-out war in mind.

“Chernobyl and the other previous disasters were either accidents or the result of natural disasters. War is manmade,” Shapiro said.

Shapiro noted that she is worried not only about a direct hit to a reactor’s core.

“If something hits ground that is already radioactive, that can be a major problem. A missile landing in the ‘Red Forest’ would be horrifically dangerous,” she said.

Rafael Grossi, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), points on a map of the Ukrainian Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant as he informs the press about the situation of nuclear powerplants in Ukraine during a special press conference at the IAEA headquarters in Vienna, Austria on March 4, 2022. (JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

Shapiro referred to a 10 square-kilometer (4 square-mile) area surrounding the Chernobyl plant in what is known as “the exclusion zone.” The pine forests absorbed so much radiation that they turned a reddish color. As part of the cleanup of the catastrophe, this area was bulldozed and the highly contaminated plant life buried underground.

“We have already heard that the Russian tanks disturbed the radioactive soil when they rolled into Chernobyl, and the radiation levels went up — but not yet to dangerous levels,” Shapiro said.

Like many others, Shapiro is also concerned about the possibility of an accident happening due to the stressful conditions under which the staff at Ukraine’s nuclear plants are working. Ukrainian personnel are still operating the captured plants, but the Russian army is in command.

“Russian troops are not trained to run nuclear Ukrainian power plants,” Shapiro noted.

She is worried that malfunctions could happen because of the duress under which plant personnel are working.

“Working at a nuclear power plant is a stressful job in normal circumstances. The psychological impact of war must be terrible on those trying to safeguard the sites. They must be working long shifts, stressed, and worrying about their families. With slips in concentration, errors can happen. And under attack, a reactor could go unsupervised as people run to take cover,” she said.

The IAEA is reportedly extremely concerned about what may be going on at Zaporizhzhia. Ukraine has reported that the Russians have cut off most means of communications between the site and its regulator, and with the rest of the world.

The situation in Ukraine is becoming more dire, with infrastructure destroyed and cities besieged. With over 900 communities without water, heat and electricity, according to Ukrainian officials, Shapiro worries that the advances made in treating radiation exposure and the stockpiling of medical countermeasures will be for naught in the event of a nuclear event — be it a malfunction, an attack on a reactor’s core, or the use of a nuclear weapon.

“This is a war, uncharted territory. Hospitals are being hit, and the country is running out of drugs and medical supplies. And people are trapped and movement is restricted,” Shapiro said.

“At least with Chernobyl we were able to triage and evacuate people,” she said.

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