War is happening all over the planet. With Russia recently striking Ukraine in multiple attacks, one of which on a nuclear plant, what does that mean for our environment?
A little background on this location: An accident which occurred at the Ukrainian Chernobyl nuclear site in April of 1986 released 400 times more radiation than the atomic bomb that dropped on Hiroshima. It killed over 30 people at the time, and the UN estimates over 9,000 later on, due to the effects of radiation exposure, which lead to cancer. In the aftermath of the disaster, crews had to construct a cement sarcophagus to cover the damaged reactor and help stop the further release of any radiation. In 2016, the structure was updated with a larger, more secure sarcophagus. It’s estimated that humans won’t be able to inhabit that area safely for another 24,000 years, yet thousands of workers still commute into the area to work at the inoperative power plant.
On the first day of the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Russians seized the Chernobyl nuclear site holding hundreds of their workers hostage. Speculation is that the taking of this specific location was a strategic move, based on the fact there were few obstacles in their way; it was safe from attack since it shares a boundary with their ally, Belarus; and it houses the region’s electrical grid.
From the get-go, there was environmental disruption, as radiation levels elevated from the dust that was kicked up by the soldiers and their vehicles. There is also an ongoing increased risk of forest fires as the conflict continues, with the abundance of dead trees and debris that could act as fuel if sparked by a cigarette, firearm or a campfire created by soldiers. If any of the radiation confinement facilities become compromised, the level of ionizing radiation in the environment could be catastrophic.
Europe’s largest nuclear plant is Zaporizhzhia, located in Southeast Ukraine. Its six reactors generate enough energy to power approximately 4 million homes. Put simply: its size and power are significant.
The first week of March, Russian forces began firing directly at the Zaporizhzhia facility, starting fires that they did not permit Ukrainian firefighters to extinguish. A shell landed within 250 feet of one of the plant’s reactor buildings. Though the site is more secure than Chernobyl was at the time of its disaster, if Zaporizhzhia had experienced hits in more vulnerable parts of the system, experts claim the meltdown damage could have been similar to that of the Fukushima Daiichi accident in 2011.
The world watches as the other nuclear plants in Ukraine are susceptible to further attacks.
It’s sad to even contemplate this possibility in 2022, but here we are.
If nuclear weapons were to be used in combat, the ocean’s chemistry would change, and potentially make the acidification of marine life like oysters, corals and clams worse. The smoke levels resulting from nuclear explosions would block sunlight and cause atmospheric cooling. This would compromise shell maintenance in marine organisms and impact food supply.
Nuclear facilities being compromised are not the only risk to the environment in times of war. The U.S. Department of Defense is the largest consumer of oil in the world and accelerates climate change, even just training for conflict when not engaged in active wars.
The toxic dust produced by weaponry and military grade vehicles cause notable air and water pollution, impacting wildlife and humans. Links to cancer and birth defects have been made to the pollution caused by the Iraq war.
Agriculture is also impacted with the presence of landmines, which restricts use of land and water, potentially leaking toxic chemicals years after placement, which also harm wildlife.
During times of war, the fuel spent to operate tanks and other military vehicles leads to huge amounts of C02 emissions, thus impacting the entire ecosystem.
We can only hope the fighting will end soon.
Witnessing war (even from afar) is traumatic and may elevate anxiety and depression. If you need assistance navigating what’s happening in our world, the American Psychological Association has provided advice that may help.