With black humor and iodine tablets, the Ukrainians are preparing for a possible Russian attack on the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant. One helps, the other doesn’t.
Once upon a time it was a joke. After concerns grew that Russia might use tactical nuclear weapons on the sidelines of Ukraine’s successful counter-offensive in Kharkiv district last year, a Ukrainian Twitter user wrote that there was a secret Telegram chat in which an orgy would be held in the event of a nuclear strike Shchekavyzja was planned. Shchekavytsia is a hill above Kiev’s historic Podil district. The tweet went viral – and Shchekavytsia Hill became a nationally known meme within a few days.
Over time, Shchekavytsia’s jokes became quiet. But after the alleged blowing up of the Kakhovka dam, as well as explicit warnings from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the head of military intelligence Kyrylo Budanov that Russia may have planned a terrorist attack on the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant, the jokes returned. Before the night of July 4-5, when rumors of a possible incident reached their peak, many Kievans jokingly arranged to meet for the morning on Shchekavytsia Street.
But for all the cultivated irony, the concerns of the Ukrainians are real and great. For one thing, after all the tragedies of the last 16 months of the war, they believe the Kremlin is capable of anything. On the other hand, the terrible Chernobyl experience of 1986 sits deep in the memories of Ukrainian families. And so it is hardly surprising that people resort to en masse, sometimes pointless measures. In the days after Zelenskyj’s first warnings at the end of June, sales of iodine tablets rose by 80 percent – a trend that continues to this day. However, because the nuclear power plant’s blocks are standing still, no iodine ions would be released in the event of an accident or an attack. A prophylaxis with potassium iodide tablets is therefore not necessary.
One and a half meters of reinforced concrete
The Ukrainian Ministry of Health also says explicitly: Potassium iodide should only be taken if recommended by the authorities. Otherwise, in the event of a radiation accident at the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant, Ukrainians should behave as follows: protect their respiratory organs, enter a room, seal it off and leave only when there is a special signal from the authorities. Nor is it a serious threat to Kiev. Ukraine is preparing for scenarios in which 50 to 100 kilometers around the nuclear power plant could be in the radiation exposure zone. Accordingly, the last few weeks have also been practiced at the official level.
A radiation release scenario is indeed not excluded. However, the announced 50 to 100 kilometers are more of a necessary overestimation in order to be prepared for the worst possible case. It is quite realistic that a radius of ten kilometers will be contaminated with radioactive cesium and strontium and become a kind of dead zone for the next few centuries. Therefore, comparisons to Chernobyl or Fukushima are “both inaccurate and misleading,” as the American Nuclear Society noted.
“Explosion of reactors is impossible because the reactors are hidden in a hermetic shell made of five feet of reinforced concrete, which was not the case with Chernobyl,” said Oleksiy Tolkachev, former chairman of the Public Council of the Inspectorate for Nuclear Regulation of Ukraine. “This hull can withstand a light aircraft crash, an internal explosion, or an accident.” It can only be destroyed by detonating several heavy-duty bombs. But then the reactor vessel would also have to be destroyed so that radioactive substances can be released.
“Kachowka blast has already done more damage”
According to Tolkachev, only the storage of spent nuclear fuel poses a serious threat. This is inside 100 reinforced concrete casks in the open air. “These containers are actually reliable, but they’re not designed to withstand targeted bombing,” he says. Even in this case, however, only a few containers would be depressurized and not all at once. “A huge catastrophe can actually only happen if the nuclear power plant is hit with tactical nuclear weapons, but that would be a completely different story,” says Tolkachev. “The destruction of the Kakhovka dam has already caused much more damage than potentially any possible accident at the Zaporizhia NPP.”
Despite the expert opinions, the Ukrainians don’t seem really calmed down. “I didn’t expect the war and neither did I expect the incident at the Kakhovka dam,” says Anastasiya, a young woman from Kiev who works in the IT sector. “I’m not panicking, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared.” Denys, manager of a restaurant in Kiev’s Podil, expresses himself in a similar way: “We always have to expect the very worst, because the Russians don’t care about the consequences. If we were to successfully advance in the direction of the city of Enerhodar, where the nuclear power plant is located, they would do it without too much time Blow up superior, I’m sure.”