Russia's bombardment of Ukraine could trigger a Chernobyl-like event. Here's why

In 1986, a nuclear calamity that helped bring down the Soviet empire began in Ukraine. Could it happen again?

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published October 7, 2022 4:05PM (EDT)

Chernobyl Nuclear reactor 4 which exploded in 1986 (Getty Images/MediaProduction)
Chernobyl Nuclear reactor 4 which exploded in 1986 (Getty Images/MediaProduction)

Recent political analysis over Russia's Ukraine invasion has fixated on the threat of a nuclear war. But the invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops has the potential to become a "nuclear" war in a very different sense: if Ukraine's nuclear power plants are harmed or breached, either deliberately or through accidental shelling, causing radioactive material to spread. This scenario isn't really far-fetched: experts on nuclear power say it could happen, and in March, surveillance footage even caught Russian troops firing rocket-propelled grenades into buildings at Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plants. Likewise, experts point to a comparable scenario that happened in peace time, and which is evocative of the worst possible scale of a nuclear disaster: the infamous meltdown colloquially known as Chernobyl. A comparable nuclear power plant accident could come about due to war, rather than the human operator error which caused Chernobyl. 

"Chernobyl," of course, is shorthand for the April 26, 1986 disaster that befell Ukraine's Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. It all started with a single mistake: Operators performing a safety test reduced the power output to near zero by accidentally hitting a button that initiated an emergency shutdown. The result was a steam explosion and fires and a melting of the reaction core at the Number Four reactor; the reactor core fire burned for eight days, spreading radioactivity throughout Europe and the Soviet Union. The official death toll for individuals directly killed by the tragedy ranges from 31 to 4,000 — or, according to some estimates, even higher. Blame was officially laid at the feet of Viktor Bryukhanov, who had helped build and manage the power plant and accepted professional responsibility while denying that he was criminally responsible. He was ultimately convicted of gross safety violations and sent to a labor camp for 10 years, serving half of his sentence until being released during the fall of the Soviet Union.

To be fair to Bryukhanov, it is more likely than not that he was as much a scapegoat as the actual party at fault. In a decision that helped bring down the fall of the Soviet Union, Moscow infamously waited three days to even announce that there had been an accident. When they finally did so, it was only through a brief statement from its formal news agency. One pediatrician who worked at a hospital in Kiev later recalled for Smithsonian Magazine the unusual symptoms displayed by children sent to her care.

... if children were coughing, at first we didn't know why. In pediatrics, if a patient has a cough, most likely a fever will follow, but not in this case. We soon realized that the cough wasn't related to any virus or infection. It was because the children were lacking oxygen, and their lungs were plugged with dust that possibly contained radiation particles. Many of the children waited outside for hours for the buses to arrive to bring them to the hospital.

Want more health and science stories in your inbox? Subscribe to Salon's weekly newsletter The Vulgar Scientist.

The long-term damage caused by the Chernobyl disaster is, quite literally, incalculable. Scientists will likely never know for sure how many people were in some way harmed by the explosion, but there are ominous signs. At least 1,800 people who lived in the affected area and were between the ages of 0 and 14 when the disaster occurred have developed thyroid cancer, far out of proportion to what would be expected. People in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus also reportedly experienced numerous mental health problems, from depression and anxiety to PTSD. Many felt that their lives had no purpose or were hopeless because they had been effectively poisoned by their proximity to the plant.

Yet the future was not entirely bleak. While many scientists expected the area soon dubbed the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone to become a barren wasteland, it instead flourished as an unintentional haven for wildlife. With more than 100,000 people out of their homes, animals like bison, deer, lynx and moose were able to take over. There is even a community of roughly 300 stray dogs, most descendants of beloved pets who had to be left behind after the explosion, and they are reportedly both wild and often quite friendly with humans.

"The fact that Russia has said that they want to link Zaporizhzhia into their power grid and have avoided the worst possibilities suggests that they are being careful to preserve the plant."

Yet the dogs have enough radioactivity in their fur that some visitors are understandably afraid to touch them. They also have a much shorter life expectancy than other dogs — the average age of death is when they are six years old. The complexity of the canine health situation underscores one of the chief themes that arises when anyone studies Chernobyl: The sheer number of variables at play when assessing its impact. Experts suspect that wind patterns determined the spread of radioactive particles in unexpected ways, which shakes things up; they also learned that some flora and fauna can actually survive, albeit in a weakened state, for reasons that remain mysterious.

* * *

Currently, one of the most terrifyingly plausible possibilities right now in Ukraine is that a nuclear incident will occur through bungling rather than malice. Former New York Times foreign correspondent Michael Dobbs, who is an expert on the Cuban Missile Crisis, noted that some of the most perilous moments of that near-nuclear war — which happened between the United States and the Soviet Union occurred in 1962 — involved soldiers and other lower-ranking personnel making potentially costly blunders.

While the war in Ukraine is obviously different from the Cuban missile crisis, it is not hard to imagine comparable failures and miscalculations. A stray shell from either side could cause an accident at a nuclear power plant, spewing radioactive fallout over much of Europe. A bungled attempt by Russia to interdict Western military supplies to Ukraine could spill over into NATO countries like Poland, triggering an automatic U.S. response. A Russian decision to use tactical nuclear weapons against Ukrainian troop formations could escalate into a full-blown nuclear exchange with the United States.

Cheryl K. Rofer, a former nuclear researcher of 30 years at Los Alamos National Laboratory, told Salon by email that "there are two bad scenarios for Russia's current invasion of Ukraine," and the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant — the largest in Europe — offers a good illustration because it "is under the most difficult conditions now." One such scenario is if artillery hits the spent fuel ponds, which would spread radiation in the local area after breaking up the fuel. Another is if one or more of the reactors melts down because of a power outage. Even that scenario would only cut electricity and not spread radioactivity — unless, of course, the concrete confinement building and stainless steel reactor vessel are breached. We know that they would resist a direct airplane crash, but it is unclear if they are also immune to shelling.

But there is "good" news, in a sense: "Either would be much, much less than what happened in Chernobyl," Rofer added. "That reactor (of an entirely different type, graphite rather than metal and oxide-based) burned openly for days. Nothing like that can happen with the VVER reactors at Zaporizhzhia."

The United States Institute of Peace pointed out that one of the greatest threats to the reactor is the ongoing loss of power caused by the armed conflict. If electricity is lost, the reactors will be unable to cool and a meltdown could result. In addition to contaminating the immediate land region, Zaporizhzhia is located on the Dnipro River, meaning any radiation could quickly spread to the Black Sea. Indeed, in addition to trying to extort the rest of the world out of help Ukraine by threatening a direct nuclear strike, Putin has also claimed that the West should not support Ukraine because this sort of nuclear plant accident could very well happen.

"What Chernobyl is useful at illustrating is that nuclear contamination can spread pretty far with the wind, and that while such contamination is very dangerous immediately after its release or creation, it pretty quickly becomes a chronic hazard, as opposed to an acute one," Alex Wallerstein, a historian of science who specializes in the history of nuclear weapons, told Salon. "So it's the sort of situation where people in the path of any contamination would need to take immediate shelter or evacuative action to avoid major damage to their health, but afterwards the affected areas would either need to be decontaminated (which would be very expensive, but is not impossible), or avoided as sites for long-term habitation by large numbers of people (but could still be, for example, visited or worked at)."

At the same time, Wallerstein could offer a mild reassurance: "It would certainly not be great, but it is not necessarily the desolated moonscape that people sometimes imagine it would be."

Rofer also offered a comforting insight.

"The fact that Russia has said that they want to link Zaporizhzhia into their power grid and have avoided the worst possibilities suggests that they are being careful to preserve the plant," Rofer pointed out.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

MORE FROM Matthew Rozsa