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March 1, 2022

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The Video Surveillance Report 2023

Radiological threat

Radiological threats in Ukraine: Time to worry? Or not?

Dan Kaszeta assesses the current radiological risks posed by troops moving through Chernobyl as part of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Dan is a London-based expert on chemical, biological and radiological defence and security issues.

Chernobyl-RadiologicalThreatsUkraine-22Putin’s military has invaded Ukraine. We’re seeing the first major conflict in Europe since the wars in the ex-Yugoslavia. We have all been distressed by the scenes of violence. But, in addition to the extensive reporting on all of the other aspects of this new war, we hear stories about radiological risks in Chernobyl.

First, let’s unpack what appears to be going on. Russian forces have indeed passed through and apparently have taken over swathes of the contaminated area around the Chernobyl nuclear power station. Both Ukrainian government sources and independent monitors announced increases in readings of some, but not all, radiological monitors in the area. The “why” question is easily answered by looking at maps. This area is on the way to Kyiv if you are invading from the north. There are not many routes through this area, but one of them is right through the exclusion area.

The principal long-term widespread radiological risk in the Chernobyl region is Caesium-137 (spelled ‘Cesium’ in other parts of the world). Caesium-137 is one of the by-products of nuclear fission. It is, indeed, highly radioactive, and it comprises the majority of the radiological risk at the current time.  Much of this is due to the fact that Caesium-137 has a long half-life of 30 years. This means that, after a 30-year period, half of the Caesium will remain. After another 30, a quarter will remain, and so forth. Although there have been significant efforts to remove the most heavily contaminated soil from the area, the region is still only a bit more than one half-life past the incident. Another isotope, Strontium-90 is also a part of the contamination, and has a 29-year half-life. Many other hazards have decayed to nothing because of the passage of time. The US has a factsheet on Caesium-137 here.

Myself and others hypothesise that the current spike in radiation counts is due to the passage of an invading army.  Lots of moving vehicles can kick up soil and dust, particularly heavy armoured vehicles. Fires, which could be ignited by battles, ambushes, and skirmished, could also suspend radioactive materials.  Indeed, some of the Caesium is difficult to remove because it has been absorbed into trees and other plants.  The bottom line is that there are a number of explanations as to why and how radiation could be released into the environment that do not necessarily mean that it happened on purpose.

The sorts of radiation we are talking about, according to both my own and others back-of-the-envelope calculations, is consistent with the sorts of radiation dose you might incur with one or two long-haul airline flights. This is not to say that there is not some regulatory or environmental health concerns with such events, but please place this is a context of a broader war. Bombs, shells, and bullets are going to kill, not transient spikes of dust that breach occupational safety limits. If it is still happening in a week or month, then we may need to re-examine the causes and effects.

“Keep these risks in their context”

The situation here is not to say “forget about it” or “do not worry about it”, but more to keep these risks in their context. There’s been no suggestion of any kind of breach in the large concrete sarcophagus that covers the most dangerous parts – the only nuclear reactor core. But it is widely known among us specialists that the broader public generally does not have the background knowledge to accurately assess radiological risks. Studies have shown that people often react to radiological and nuclear incidents by mis-estimating the actual risks and hazards posed by radiation.

The invasion of Ukraine is unfolding on the information warfare front as well as in ground and air combat. Is it just plausible that kicking up a lot of radioactive dust is deliberately meant to instil fear or anxiety? This is plausible. Although it could just be incidental to forces transiting the area, part of Putin’s motivation is likely that he wishes to punish Ukraine for dealing with the west.

Stoking fears that Ukraine is more of an environmental hazard than it actually is could be part of a broader plan. We should not fall for it.

DanKaszeta-Headshot-22Readers interested in background on the Caesium contamination near Chernobyl can read more here.

About the author

Dan Kaszeta is a London-based expert on chemical, biological, and radiological defence and security issues. He is an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and a published author.  Dan has held positions in the US Army, the US Dept of Defense, the US Secret Service, and private industry.


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