As Russian troops take Chernobyl and invade the highly-industrial separatist-controlled Donbas region, experts worry that on top of the primary death and destruction associated with war, the invasion could create a permanent environmental catastrophe associated with nuclear material and other toxic chemicals stored throughout the regions.
An advisor to the Ukrainian Interior Ministry said Thursday morning that Russian troops coming from Belarus had entered the nuclear disaster zone surrounding Chernobyl. The advisor warned that fighting around Chernobyl might disturb nuclear waste in the exclusion zone—a 1,000-square-mile region surrounding the site of the 1986 nuclear disaster.
“The Russian Federation military is pushing beyond the previously established contact line, with their heavy military presence compounding soil, water, and air risks,” Kristina Hook, assistant professor of conflict management at Kennesaw State University, who studies environmental fallout of conflict in Ukraine wrote in an email to Motherboard. “As of the time of this writing, it is also being reported that the Russian military has seized the Chernobyl exclusion zone, a factor that some Ukrainians refer to as holding Europe hostage.”
Outside of Chernobyl, experts fear Russian bombings in the Donbas region, a Russian-occupied separatist region in the eastern part of the nation, could lead to lasting environmental damage.
“The east of Ukraine is heavily industrial, full of chemical factories, run-down mines and thermal power plants. The potential for an environmental catastrophe to add to the horrific humanitarian crisis is enormous,” said Richard Pearshouse, head of crisis and environment at Amnesty International in Geneva.
Ukraine is home to 15 nuclear power reactors across four plants that supply about half of its energy needs—if struck, they could release radioactive waste that would contaminate the area for thousands of years. Among these facilities is the largest nuclear plant in Europe, the Zaporizhzhia power plant, which sits around 125 miles west of the Donbas combat zone and could soon find itself directly on the front line of conflict. This would cause unknowable environmental damage, and would also threaten the country’s energy security (the plant provides around a quarter of the country’s overall electricity supply.)
“Turning the Ukraine into a dystopian landscape, pockmarked by radioactive exclusion zones, would be an extreme method to obtain the defensive zone Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to want. Managing a massive Western-focused migratory crisis and environmental cleanup would absorb Europe for years,” founder of the Themistocles AG national security consultancy Craig Hooper warned in Forbes in December.
Donbas alone has 900 active and inactive coal and metallurgical mines that have degraded local air quality and leached toxins into local water supplies. Satellite images captured by UK spatial analysis company Terra Motion between 2015 and 2020 show abandoned mines in the region swelling up with water, a result of neglect by the separatist regime, according to David Gee, senior technical officer at the company. Toxins from abandoned mines are supposed to be regularly cleared out and treated to prevent the mine from flooding uncontrollably, Gee explained—since this hasn’t been happening, a number are filling up with water and could leak into nearby rivers at any moment.
Donbas is a “ticking toxic time bomb,” Wim Zwijnenburg, humanitarian disarmament project leader at PAX, a Dutch peace organization, wrote in Bellingcat in 2017. In an interview with Motherboard, he noted that Ukraine has, in recent years, poured money into addressing environmental concerns in the region, and these investments have “now been undone.”
“The slow investments being built up, and the knowledge and expertise built up in the last couple of years has now been undone,” he said. “We are now in the dark when it comes to the risk of the flooding of the mines, when it comes to toxic and radioactive waste, we are now in the dark when it comes to who is dealing with all these factories, and there’s probably experts working in those chemical factories who are now fleeing or who will be killed.”
Flooding around mines in Donbas—the site of years of fighting between Russia and Ukraine—have long stoked concern over a “second Chernobyl,” the Telegraph reported Thursday morning. The Yunkom coal mine, in particular, was flooded by the Russian army in 2018—a move that the US state department warned at the time would “threaten the drinking water of thousands of Ukrainians in Russia-controlled East Ukraine.”
“This has been a problem that has been building for a while,” Gee said.
A 2015 World Bank assessment of environmental risks in the highly-industrial region estimated that 10-20 mines had been flooded in armed conflict, “potentially causing massive environmental damage in the region.” Attacks on select power plants have also caused the spillage of crude and the release of toxins into nearby air and waterways. The paper identifies Donbas as one of the most polluted areas in Ukraine.
“The current crisis will make all of this worse,” Hook said.
“Our research shows that approximately 3.4-million people already lack access to safe water as a result of environmental degradation caused by the conflict, and this escalation will significantly worsen this,” she added.
In October of 2020, Hook co-developed a tool to analyze environmental risks in warzones using Ukraine as a case study: Armed conflict in the Donbas region would cause more than 11,000 deaths, led to nearly 2-million displaced persons, and left 4.4-million people in need of humanitarian assistance, she wrote in a paper. Environmental threats pile on to these harms in a way that’s difficult to quantify, but will likely be permanent without remediation.
“Due to the persistence of pollutants in ecosystems, they will remain active and harmful in the Donbas and in the global ecosystem even if/once peace is achieved,” Hook writes in the paper, co-authored with Richard Marcantonio, researcher in international peace studies at the University of Notre Dame. “The people inhabiting the Donbas region will continue to suffer and literally embody the damage for decades to come.”