Russian Shelling Damaged a Nuclear Research Facility, Ukraine Says

The research facility was built in partnership with the U.S. government and produces isotopes for training and medical applications.
Russian Shelling Damaged a Nuclear Research Facility, Ukraine Says
National Science Center, Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology. Image: Ace^eVg via Wikimedia

A research center housing a nuclear neutron source facility held at the Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology in eastern Ukraine was hit by Russian forces on Sunday, per a report from the state nuclear inspectorate. 

In a release published Sunday evening, the inspectorate called the blast “nuclear terrorism,” spelling out a list of damages: a substation, which connects the plant to the electrical grid, on which the plant runs; cables within the facility’s cooling system, which effectively prevent the plant from a meltdown; a heating line between structures in the facility; surface damages to the building that houses the structure; and windows across a number of buildings within the installation. 

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“This list of damages is not complete so far. Currently, information on the consequences of the damages is being specified by the personnel,” the report reads. An updated report following further inspection located no additional damage this morning.

The Security Service of Ukraine’s Kharkiv branch said destruction of the facility could lead to “environmental disaster,” the Kyiv Independent reported Sunday. Russian state-owned news agency TASS reported Sunday that the attacks were in fact brought on by Ukraine, a line that has since been debunked. 

The reactor, known as the NSA “Neutron Source” was built with support from the Illinois-based Argonne National Laboratory in service of an agreement signed between the U.S. and Ukraine at the 2010 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C. The U.S. invested $73 million in the project, which promised that the Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology would be “given the opportunity to build state-of-the-art technology in nuclear research that will contribute to ‘solving problems of nuclear power industry and extending technical lifetime of nuclear power plants,’” according to a report from the European Union Non-Proliferation Consortium.

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The attack spurred alarm globally, but Mark Hibbs, Germany-based senior fellow in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s nuclear policy program, assured Motherboard that the facility appeared to be damaged, not destroyed, and that if it had been, risk to human health would’ve been minimal. 

The facility is very small, contains only “gram amounts” of uranium (nuclear fuel), and was not designed for power generation. Rather, it produces isotopes for nuclear therapy and medical procedures, and for the training of personnel entering Ukraine’s nuclear sector. And crucially, the facility hadn’t started up yet—it was poised to start in April, and was de-fueled in anticipation of attacks from Russia before Sunday’s strike, Hibbs said. 

“It’s not a power reactor,” Hibbs said. Its destruction “would have been a sad and tragic loss to the nuclear program in Ukraine, but it would not have posed a human health hazard,” he said. 

Even so, the attack represents a symbolic strike on Ukraine’s nuclear sector and possibly even the U.S.’, given the close ties between the facility and American collaborators. 

“It had a variety of nuclear energy applications. It was clearly a project that involved cooperation between Ukraine and the United States,” Hibbs said. “To a certain extent, it might have been seen by attackers as a symbolic target.” 

“An attack on activities like this would be disturbing to scientists in Russia, who are involved in the same activities as in Ukraine,” he said.

Jeff Merrifield, former member of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told E&E News he saw the series of attacks on Ukrainian nuclear infrastructure—at the Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia nuclear facilities—as part of a wider attempt to chip away at the country’s energy security. 

“Russians want to control these plants because they want to be able to shut off the power,” Merrifield said. “They want to be able to exert that level of control.”