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There won't be a new Chornobyl - Ukrainian radiobiologist's opinion

There won't be a new Chornobyl - Ukrainian radiobiologist's opinion Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (Photo: Getty Umages)

A potential terrorist attack by Russians on the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant could result in radioactive contamination of water in the Dnipro River and soil in the surrounding areas. However, there will not be another Chornobyl disaster, said Olena Parenyuk, a senior researcher of the Institute for Safety Problems of Nuclear Power Plants of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, in a comment to RBC-Ukraine.

"It could be a localized event, meaning that it will likely affect those in close proximity to the plant more than those downstream along the Dnipro River," she said.

Possible emission of radioactive substances

Parenyuk stated that in the event of an incident at the ZNPP, water contamination is possible depending on the direction of the radioactive substances' release, although "there is currently a repeated mantra about the wind direction's impact."

"Most likely, water will be contaminated. In that case, it is very likely that substances will reach the Dnipro River and areas that use water from the Dnipro for irrigation. However, there are not many such areas left. Therefore, we are primarily talking about water contamination, which will subsequently lead to soil contamination," she explained.

Advice for the population

Parenyuk emphasized that in the event of an incident at the ZNPP, the main priority for the population should be to prepare drinking water. "Also, prepare technical water for cleaning dishes. Store food in closed containers," she advised.

"The ideal concept is that if an incident occurs, the authorities will inform you, and at that moment, you should have food and water stored in sealed containers. As soon as you hear that something is happening, seal your residence, where you are located, and wait for further instructions from the authorities regarding what to do," she added.

According to Parenyuk, the scale of a possible incident is currently unknown. "We don't know the extent of contamination or where it will flow. Experts and scientists need to conduct analyses, measure the exposure dose, and analyze the content of radionuclides in the air, and so on," she said.

"It is essential to understand that we want to prevent radionuclides from entering our bodies, meaning that they should not be inhaled, consumed, or ingested through water," the expert noted.

She also recommended immediately closing windows and minimizing the inflow of air from the outside. "In summer, this can be quite challenging, so in theory, you can take fabric, wet it with water, and hang it on doors and windows. The most critical factor is not to drink water from natural sources because we don't know which sources will be contaminated," Parenyuk added.

The scale of the problem

Parenyuk stated that it is currently difficult to predict the scale of a potential accident. "We don't know which area will be contaminated. Most likely, only a small area along the banks of the Dnipro will be affected. If the Kakhovka HPP was still in place, an explosion at the Zaporizhzhia NPP would have contaminated the entire reservoir. However, the Dnipro River flows swiftly, so there is a likelihood that everything will be carried into the Black Sea," she explained.

As a result, radiation will reach the Black Sea, and the coastlines of Odesa, Mykolaiv, and neighboring countries will be contaminated in some way.

"However, to assert anything about it, measurements need to be taken because if only a small amount of radionuclides leaks, it will not contaminate anything. There will be dilution, and everything will be fine. It depends on the extent of release, and based on that, the authorities will make decisions. We have the State Scientific and Technical Center for Nuclear and Radiation Safety, which will issue directives about what to do, whether to evacuate, stay at home, or clean the floors. They will inform us about it," she stated.

Iodine is not needed

Parenyuk reminded everyone not to take iodine as a preventive measure or in the event of an incident. "Zaporizhia NPP does not produce electricity, so there is no active reaction occurring there since September. All short-lived radionuclides, which are quite dangerous, have already decayed. Iodine has a half-life of 8.5 days, so there is no point in taking potassium iodide because there is no radioactive iodine," she clarified.

Not a Chornobyl disaster

Parenyuk emphasized that there will definitely not be another Chornobyl disaster as a result of a possible terrorist attack on the Zaporizhzhia NPP. Firstly, this is due to the different design of the reactors, which are much more protected.

However, the main factor is the current state of affairs in Ukraine. "The key to overcoming the consequences of any accident, including radiation accidents, lies in how prepared the state is and what it does to mitigate the consequences. The Soviet Union, for example, famously expelled people to demonstrate. We will not do that; no one will hide anything," she said.

Parenyuk mentioned that for those who do not trust the government, there is a civil organization called SaveDnipro. "They have non-governmental posts monitoring radioactivity. They have exposure dose measurements throughout Ukraine. You can visit their website and see it. Radioactivity cannot be concealed. If it exists, it cannot be hidden. This way, you can verify what the officials are saying," she added.

Parenyuk reminded everyone that almost all reactors at the Zaporizhzhia NPP are currently in a cold shutdown. This means that the fuel temperature is relatively low. One power unit is in hot shutdown, and theoretically, it can be activated, which could lead to more significant consequences. However, it is impossible to predict the actions of the Russians.

"So, we can say that it will most likely be the emission of radioactive substances rather than a thermal explosion caused by the reactor's heating. If it is the emission, then we are talking about contamination. This is based on the most probable scenarios given our current situation," she concluded.

In March 2022, Russian forces seized the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, the Zaporizhzhia NPP. Kyrylo Budanov, the Chief of the Defense Intelligence of Ukraine, stated that Russia completed preparations for the destruction of the ZNPP, and the cooling pond and four power units were mined. He explained that without cooling, nuclear reactors can melt down within a period ranging from ten hours to 14 days.