The military conflict in Ukraine could trigger a nuclear meltdown if fighting disrupts the electrical grid keeping that nation's reactors running, a former U.S. government policy analyst warned Wednesday.
"Given the stakes, failure to prepare for the worst is not an option," Bennett Ramberg, a policy analyst in the State Department’s Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs under President George H. W. Bush, wrote in Lebanon's Daily Star
Ramberg said that if Russia attacks Ukraine, "fighting could disrupt" nearby power plants or electrical grids that send power to the nation's 15 atomic energy reactors.
"Twenty-eight years after its Chernobyl nuclear plant exploded, Ukraine confronts a nuclear specter of a different kind: the possibility that the country's reactors could become military targets in the event of a Russian invasion," he wrote.
Though the Kremlin calls past warnings about the threat — including an alert from Ukraine's acting foreign minister Andril Deshchytsia — "malicious slander," Ramberg wrote, the fears are real.
"The sheer scale of Ukraine's nuclear enterprise calls for far greater global concern," he wrote, noting that "15 aging plants" provide 40 percent of the country's electricity generation.
"Given that Russia, too, suffered serious consequences from the Chernobyl accident, it is to be hoped that the Kremlin would recoil at the idea of bombing the plants intentionally. But warfare is rife with accidents and human error, and such an event involving a nuclear plant could cause a meltdown."
Ramberg noted that nuclear plants keep large emergency diesel generators as backup, but that "Japan's Fukushima Daichi power station
in 2011 demonstrated what happens when primary and emergency operating power are cut."
"[T]hough no one stands to gain from a radioactive release, if war breaks out, we must anticipate the unexpected," he warned, adding: "In Ukraine, nuclear emissions could exceed [those of] both Chernobyl and Fukushima."
"Such risks might be one reason for Russian President Vladimir Putin to think twice about ordering a military invasion of Ukraine, if indeed that is his intention. But, should war come, combatants must do all they can to keep conflict away from the nuclear sites and the off-site power sources feeding them."
Ramberg urged plant operators in Ukraine to stockpile diesel fuel to keep emergency generators operating and "perform review and maintenance of generators to ensure that they are set to go."
"In the event of fighting near reactors, the West should prepare to ferry forces to secure the plants and keep generators operating, and, in the event of a meltdown, the West should rally both governments to initiate a cease-fire to deal with the disaster," he urged.
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