Ukraine’s volatility exacerbates the risk for the country’s 15 Soviet-style nuclear reactors, warn German experts. They demand more attention for the country where the world’s worst nuclear accident took place.
The recent news of a water shortage due to a broken pipeline affecting thousands in strife ravaged Eastern Ukraine spells trouble for the safety of the country's nuclear power plants.
That's because the security and reliability of a country's critical infrastructure like its electrical power and water grid is essential to safely run nuclear reactors.
"Once you have decided to operate a nuclear power plant or like in this case a nuclear reactor park, you must guarantee you don't have unstable social situations and you definitely can't have a war," Michael Sailer, chairman of the German Nuclear Waste Management Commission and member of the German Reactor Safety Commission, told DW.
Potential for human error
"We are talking about nuclear power plants that have a high risk even when they are constructed well and properly maintained," Sailer who also heads Freiburg-based environmental think tank Öko-Institut added. "And in the Ukraine we are talking about the additional problem that there is an increased potential for human error due to less motivated nuclear operators than elsewhere and the fact that the security features of these reactors are a lot weaker than those of modern reactors."
Ukraine currently has four nuclear power plants with 15 reactors online providing roughly half of the country's energy needs which makes it practically impossible to shut them down during the crisis. All of the reactors stem from the Soviet era, went on the grid in the 1980s and are similar to the Chernobyl reactor that blew in 1986 causing the worst nuclear accident in history. Ukraine's largest plant in Zaporizhia is located about 200 kilometers from Donetsk, the epicenter of the clash between pro-Russian militants and the Kyiv government.
Danger of sabotage
But it's not just the maintenance of the technical infrastructure and the motivation of the engineers operating the reactors that has the experts worried. The continued fighting between government and pro-Russian forces including the seizure of buildings raises the risk that the country's nuclear plants could also be drawn into the mix.
The older Soviet-style reactors are already less safe than those in Western Europe, Lothar Hahn, former director of the Gesellschaft für Anlagen- und Reaktorsicherheit (GRS), Germany's leading nuclear safety research center, told DW. "But this is even overshadowed by the danger of sabotage or war. Then you would immediately have a dramatic situation on your hands."
The experts did not want to describe possible sabotage or war scenarios on the record, but stressed that they consider this a real danger. "You don't need an army, only 20 to 30 highly trained men," said Hahn. "These things are totally incalculable."
That's why NATO sent a small civilian expert team to Ukraine in April to advise officials on improving the safety of nuclear power plants and other critical infrastructure "in the context of possible threats". The experts then produced a confidential report that has been handed over to Ukrainian officials.
One reason for Ukraine's request for NATO help was "possible destabilization" in the area where strategic infrastructure was located, the country's ambassador to the alliance told Reuters.
NATO's help is useful, but also limited, said Sailer. It can advise Ukrainian officials on how to improve its facilities to better defend against possible intruders. "But at the end of the day, if you have a team that is sympathizing with pro-Russian militants and the conflict escalates then this will become part of it. The second thing where NATO can't help at all is the safety and stability of the power grid."
"If you imagine Ukraine without clear command structures, this clearly means that the stability of the entire power grid is threatened," noted Sailer. "And a nuclear power plant without several connections to a solid power grid is extremely dangerous."
That the command structures particularly in the east of the country are already tenuous and embattled is evidenced by the ongoing fighting, the hostage taking of OSCE observers and the seizures of public buildings. And that this can easily affect critical infrastructure is highlighted by the recent news of a broken water pipeline in Eastern Ukraine.
That's why - notwithstanding NATO's assistance - not enough attention is being paid to the security of nuclear power plants in Ukraine, argue the experts.
"It's really a problem, because only very few people think about this," said Sailer. Nuclear experts usually don't focus on such instable situations and the people who are concerned with instable situations like diplomats usually don't realize how sensitive a nuclear power plant is."