Zaporizhzhia: What Would Be the Consequences of an Accident?

Lyman said the Forum’s report based its cancer death predictions only on cases within the former Soviet Union, ignoring exposure to populations in other parts of Europe and the Northern Hemisphere. The original Chernobyl health impact report conducted by UN agencies and published in 1988, did address the global exposure to radiation in response to the accident, and estimated it would ultimately correspond to 30,000 or more cancer deaths, Lyman said.

The fundamental issue is whether one believes that low-level exposures will cause cancer or not — and the worldwide expert consensus is that they do. The Chernobyl Forum essentially assumed otherwise,” he said, calling the study a “highly political document with conclusions that were carefully massaged to minimize the impacts of the accident.”

Studies following the survivors of the Chernobyl disaster have shown an increase in cases of thyroid cancer. In the decades following the accident, researchers detected rates of that particular condition in young people in the former Soviet Union that were around three times higher than expected. This increase is partly attributed to the consumption of tainted milk, studies reported.

However, according to Lyman, the large studies outlining overall cancer risk were published in the early 2000s, at a time when many cancers that could have been triggered by the Chernobyl disaster may not yet have started showing up. And nearly 20 years later, there hasn’t been any comprehensive follow-up to these reports.

Reports on the disaster’s health impact also note high rates of depression and anxiety in the surrounding population.

Fukushima — a Better Comparison
ccording to Lyman, any fallout from a possible accident at the Zaporizhzhia power plant would likely have more in common with the fallout of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.

The consequences that led to such a large and wide dispersal of radioactive activity [at Chernobyl] are probably less likely to occur at the reactors at Zaporizhzhia, which are light water reactors more similar to the reactors in Germany or elsewhere in the West,” he said.

The nuclear accident in Fukushima marks the only other disaster at a plant that has been rated a ‘seven’ on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s International Nuclear Event Scale. It was generated by a powerful tsunami and earthquake that caused the plant to lose power, prompting three nuclear meltdowns, hydrogen explosions and extensive releases of radiation from the facility.

Official reports have concluded that although many people died in the tsunami and earthquake, none died in direct response to the nuclear incident. Aside from radiation sickness experienced by people in the direct vicinity, they say, the biggest health impact has been the psychological stress people nearby experienced when they were evacuated.

Today, researchers say the Fukushima incident has left only a negligible mark on the surrounding environment, because much of the radiation was released into the nearby sea.

Zaporizhzhia is obviously landlocked, so that wouldn’t be the case. But still, you would expect probably less radioactive material released and dispersed less widely,” Lyman said.

Lyman added that the level of radiation a potential accident at Zaporizhzhia could release would depend on whether the accident was technical (i.e., a response to the facility losing power for multiple days) or related to combat, in which case the radiation would be released more quickly. In a situation like that, the severity of any consequences would probably fall somewhere in between of what happened at Chernobyl and what happened at Fukushima, he said.

I think the likelihood of another Chernobyl-like event affecting Germany is lower,” he said. “There would probably be measurable impacts, but not as great as what was experienced in 1986.”

Ukraine’s Other Reactors Also Present a Risk
Zaporizhzhia has drawn a lot of attention because it’s currently the only Ukrainian nuclear plant under direct Russian control. But Lyman said he is also concerned about the other plants in Ukraine, which are older. That makes them even more susceptible to catastrophic failure in the event of an accident.

There are three other nuclear plants in Ukraine that are actually closer to the Western border. So they’re away from the front, but they’re still within range of Russian rocket fire or drones,” he said.

He said that although none of those reactors are the same model as those at Chernobyl, some are older Soviet light-water reactors that wouldn’t be as resistant to an attack as the plant at Zaporizhzhia.

If things unravel, and they become more affordable to attack, that could be a greater concern to Western Europe,” he said.

Clare Roth is a Fulbright Young Journalist in Germany. This article was edited by Derrick Williams, and it is published courtesy of Deutsche Welle (DW). The article was originally published on 8 November 2022, and updated on 22 November 2022 in light of current events in Ukraine.