NUCLEAR RISKSZaporizhzhia: What Would Be the Consequences of an Accident?

By Clare Roth

Published 22 November 2022

Although it’s impossible to say for sure what consequences an accident at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant might have on human health in the environment nearby, experts can make some predictions.

When people think about nuclear threats and thewar in Ukraine, most consider two possibilities: What would happen if an accident occurred at a Ukrainian nuclear plant? And what would happen if a nuclear weapon were deployed?

For this article, we talked to experts about the health impact the Fukushima and Chernobyl disasters had on surrounding populations, and asked them to explain the degree to which those disasters might provide a framework for our current understanding of risk at Zaporizhzhia.

In the next article in this series, we’ll explain the health effects linked to the detonation of nuclear weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and also look at what could happen if nuclear weapons were detonated in today’s world.

Zaporizhzhia Under Occupation
Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia power plant is located not far from the country’s southern border. This year it became the first active nuclear plant in history to continue operations in the midst of a war.

Since occupying forces seized the plant in March, many across Europe have been wondering how a potential accident there would compare with the 1986 Chernobyl disaster — an event that for decades marked the worst nuclear power accident in history. The Chernobyl meltdown released radiation across Europe and tainted humans, plants and animals throughout the region.

Over 30 plant workers died in the three months following the disaster at the Soviet power station as a direct result of the meltdown. A report published by the Chernobyl Forum, a group of UN agencies formed in 2003 to assess the health and environmental consequences of the accident, suggested in 2006 that it will cause at least 4,000 cancer deaths in the long term, although that estimate is hotly debated.

Understanding of Chernobyl’s Health Effects Contested
Some experts say the actual impact of the disaster was concealed by Soviet officials in an attempt to downplay its severity. One of them is Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor Kate Brown. She has conducted extensive research on the impact radiation has had on people’s health in Ukraine and surrounding countries since the 1986 accident.

In a Greenpeace report published in 2006, researchers estimated the predicted death toll at around 90,000 — nearly 23 times the number suggested by the Chernobyl Forum report.

Edwin Lyman, a physicist and director of Nuclear Power Safety with the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists, said he, “doesn’t consider the Chernobyl Forum report to be authoritative.”