Nukewatch Quarterly Spring 2022
By John LaForge
In June 2019, we reported on “Project Dilithium,” a U.S. Army proposal to build small, portable nuclear reactors that could be hauled to remote military outposts to provide electricity. The Army said the reactors could reduce the number of diesel tanker caravans, could shorten military supply lines, and could eliminate some easy targets. Popular Mechanics and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists warned at the time that putting a reactor in a warzone exchanges one easy target for another, one that risks catastrophic health and environmental damage from core meltdowns. With Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine threatening its 15 nuclear reactors, we trust the U.S. Army will scrap its plans for battlefield units.
Now in the context of Russia’s war in Ukraine, two Massachusetts Institute of Technology professors, Kate Brown and Susan Solomon, have penned a powerful warning against nuclear power in the Washington Post. The piece — “One thing nuclear power plants weren’t built to survive: War”— is excerpted below for space reasons.
“Military strategists commonly target the enemy’s electrical grid. That’s a problem when combat is in a nuclearized country like Ukraine. … The world is watching the first war in a nuclearized country — and combat has already reached active reactors.
“Even without a direct hit on a reactor, we are learning of the fragility of nuclear power [reactors]. … it is vulnerable not only to terrorism but to war.
“As power was cut to the Chernobyl [complex in March], nuclear engineers explained the importance of the electricity grid — even for plants that have been out of operation for decades. Chernobyl’s molten radioactive lava self-heats inside the belly of the blown reactor. Without ventilation, which requires electricity, hot air forms condensation that rains down inside the building, corroding and damaging equipment.
“Chernobyl’s [waste] fuel is another danger. Left to its own devices, it can heat up to 1,000 degrees Celsius. At high temperatures, the zirconium sleeves covering the fuel can ignite. After the Chernobyl accident in 1986, Soviet liquidators hastily built huge basins to store highly radioactive [waste] fuel rods. Water pumped into the basins cools the fuel and blocks radioactive gamma rays that emanate from the irradiated uranium. Now 20,000 fuel rods are stored in Chernobyl basins designed for 17,000.
“Even more troubling is the fact that the 15 active nuclear power reactors in Ukraine are still operating or were shut down only recently. They are chock-full of extremely radioactive, hot nuclear fuel, both inside the reactors and in cooling ponds. As nuclear materials expert Claire Corkhill explained to the BBC, if electricity is cut to those plants as it was to Chernobyl, we could face a meltdown of multiple reactors similar to the catastrophe at Fukushima.”