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Nuclear security is under attack in Ukraine, say experts at Bellona forum

Frederic Hauge
Frederic Hauge
Bellona

Publish date: February 28, 2024

What are the risks of conducting a war around a nuclear power plant? How much of the world nuclear market is influenced by Rosatom, the state nuclear corporation of the country that started that war? Are the Russians testing new nuclear weapons in the Arctic? And when it comes to nuclear safety in Europe’s northern reaches, can we even communicate with Moscow anymore?

These and other questions were raised during today’s Bellona forum, “War and the Russian Nuclear Industry,” which brough together experts from Norway and Bellona’s new offices in Vilnius — the new locale for the organization’s Russian staff, who can no longer safely conduct their work on Russian soil.

“We have full-scale war in a country with full-scale nuclear installations, and a situation where international cooperation on nuclear security no longer exists,” said Bellona founder Frederic Hauge in the forum’s opening remarks.

Bellona has worked on nuclear cleanup in Russia since the early 1990s, and this month mark 30 years since Bellona released its first report on the nuclear threat caused by the legacy of the Soviet nuclear navy. It has also been almost exactly two years since Russia invaded Ukraine. That was the backdrop for today’s Bellona Forum, where about 100 people participated physically or digitally.

Tons of Nuclear Waste

Aleksandr Nikitin, a former Russian nuclear submarine officer and Bellona employee of 30 years standing, opened the forum by discussing Bellona’s strategic goals for its nuclear project in Russia.

Alexander Nikitin.

“First and foremost, together with international actors, we have worked to prevent radiation and nuclear accidents at Russian facilities,” he said. “We have also been concerned with ensuring the elimination or safe conversion of the Soviet nuclear and radiation legacy.”

He noted that the Russian nuclear and radiation legacy consists of nearly 20,000 tons of used nuclear fuel, approximately 800,000 cubic meters of radioactive waste, over 4,700 nuclear and radiation hazardous facilities — as well as more than 30,000 cubic meters of radioactive waste dumped on the seabed.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, international efforts to grapple with those issues have stalled.

“But at Bellona, we still have full focus on the Russian nuclear industry, even though now, since we were banned by Russian authorities, we must operate from outside Russia’s borders,” Nikitin said. “We are still working to gather and disseminate information; we share knowledge about the use of nuclear technologies and how the Russian nuclear industry contributes to the continuation of the war in Ukraine.”

‘Rosatom Significantly Involved in the War’

One of the employees at Bellona’s Environmental Transparency Center in Vilnius is nuclear expert Dmitry Gorchakov, who spoke at the Bellona Forum about the role of the Russian atomic agency Rosatom in Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Dmitry Gorchakov

“We closely monitor nuclear risks in Ukraine. And we monitor Rosatom’s global nuclear activities and the agency’s role in the international nuclear market closely,” said Gorchakov.

Rosatom is the world’s largest builder of nuclear power plants. One-third of all nuclear power plants under construction in the world are either built by Rosatom or according to Rosatom’s technology and design.

“Rosatom is significantly involved in the ongoing war. One of the most critical situations is the occupation of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, Zaporizhzhia (in southeastern Ukraine), which the Russians have occupied since the first weeks of the war. Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have been denied access to several areas of the facility,” said Gorchakov.

He highlighted three main risks at the nuclear power plant as it continues to be controlled by Russia on the front lines of the conflict.

“First, there is a risk of equipment damage due to abnormal operation and lack of maintenance. The second risk is the lack of qualified personnel. But the biggest risk, of course, is the war itself; it is unpredictable and creates chaos. Dramatic changes can occur at any time. For example, if Russia decides to switch reactors to power mode or if military activity escalates near the plant,” said Gorchakov.

Secret Nuclear Weapons Program

Thomas Nilsen from The Independent Barents Observer also participated in the Bellona forum. He talked about Russia’s secret reactor-driven nuclear weapons program and its development and testing in the Arctic.

Thomas Nilsen of the Independent Barents Observer.

“We are in a new arms race involving new nuclear weapons and new reactor systems. And we are back to the flow of information that existed during the Soviet era, meaning almost no information. We at The Barents Observer have not reported a single incident from Russian nuclear submarines in the past four years, and that’s not because accidents haven’t happened. It’s becoming harder and harder to obtain information from Russia,” Nilsen explained.

The Barents Observer is the only Norwegian media outlet with four exiled Russian journalists on its editorial staff.

You can watch the entire Bellona forum by clicking on this link.

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