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Russian Troops at Chernobyl

Mark Nelson

Friday, February 25, 2022

Chris Keefer  0:00  

Welcome back to Decouple. Tonight, I'm joined by Mark Nelson, trained as a nuclear engineer here to talk about the nuclear safety situation in Ukraine tonight. Mark, welcome back to Decouple. Thanks, Chris. It's a pretty somber occasion feels like we're heading up on about 20 hours of the next chapter really in history. You've been doing some really interesting analysis following what's what's happening in Ukraine, with special attention to the grid and its nuclear stations. And as you've said, on Twitter, these are unprecedented times. This is the first time in world history that operating and non operating nuclear plants have been captured in a time of war. Is that correct?

Mark Nelson  0:39  

Yes. I mean, there have been there have been nuclear plants either unconstructed been under construction that have been attacked. During the war, for example, in Iran, an under construction nuclear plant was attacked. But also we've had non civilian nuclear plants, like military reactors and research reactors be attacked. This is this is new.

Chris Keefer  1:01  

So walk us through what's going on on the ground right now? Sure, well,

Mark Nelson  1:05  

let's, there are two different things to talk about here. One is the condition of the nuclear plant site at Chernobyl. So former nuclear plant, there is no nuclear reactions going on right now, in any reactor course, the site has been decommissioned since 1999, at the end of 1999, Chernobyl nuclear plant was shut down, the Ukrainian government worked out a deal where they would shut down Chernobyl plant, which had been in service since the accident in 1986. And they would shut it down and get money to complete another plant of a different design. So they were trying to replace like, with like, they were still reluctant to shut down a nuclear plant, but they were under a lot of pressure from Europe. So Chernobyl is one issue that you could say, a dead nuclear site. And then we've got the online plants, the four plants that are in other parts of the country that are currently online. I mean, I say currently, with a situation like this, I stopped to record a video with you stuff may change. So we run the risk of by the time you get this out, something may have changed. But the last time I checked, the four nuclear plants were up and running. And as demand is going down on the Ukrainian grid, because of the disruption of war, those four plants seem to be load matching a little bit and decreasing their operation. But for most of the today, that's February 24. For most of today, the nuclear plants were providing something like 70 75%, of Ukrainian electricity. Wow. And that's going to be a different issue from Chernobyl, because those plants are operating nuclear reactions are going on pressure vessels are high temperature and, you know, filled with hot water. So that makes a different situation than Chernobyl. But I think we should talk about both the vast majority of what we're going to see on the internet, a lot of the posts that I've been responding to have been about Chernobyl, even though the we have actual operating nuclear plants in a country at war, where connection to the grid is safety relevant. And it's just really interesting, Chris, what catches people's attention during this time? And that attention just keeps going back to Chernobyl, when you would think that if nuclear safety is the concern here, that really nuclear safety, people should really be paying attention to operating nuclear plants in a war zone.

Chris Keefer  3:30  

Is there any part of you know, psychological operations that's determining the Russian activity at Chernobyl? Or is this just simply a way to get around a swamp and get into Ukraine?

Mark Nelson  3:40  

i We're now immediately into speculating, I think we should probably stay in nuclear safety. But to not leave that without an answer. I doubt that anything weird is going on, at least from the Russian side.

It does appear that Russia has controlled the site, it's directly on the path through the privyet march marches on the way on the road to Kiv from the from the north, from the northern border. So it's it's like not, it's something you would have gone through anyway. And so I don't I don't think there's anything from the Russian side, the Russians appear to be holding it. I've seen some reports. I haven't seen it confirm that. artillery shell may have hit one of the facilities there. Perhaps some of this spent fuel storage areas from the operation of the plant that something different than the reactor for that had the meltdown in the explosion and the sarcophagus and outer containment. So that appears to be happening. The very first notes I saw about Chernobyl earlier today, where I didn't really like to tone but I don't want to critique people in a time of war when your country is under attack, but it's like, we're, you know, Chernobyl is dangerous and we're about to lose and it's going to blow up and all that stuff, which doesn't make a lot of sense, but I think almost anything else forgiveable you're the country under attack in a time of war. But I don't think Russia has done anything intentional. And we can discuss what that means from a radiation perspective, what the. So what we've seen is that in recent hours radiations on gamma ray sensor, so gamma radiation is one of the types of radiation that is a high energy rays sort of like X rays, but with a little more, more zip to them. Gamma rays are what you would use at the dentist to take photos X ray photos of teeth, right. Okay, so gamma rays you can build detectors for and there's a network, a big network of detectors all around Chernobyl, it's one of the things that lets people know it's safe for tourism. It's a very popular tourist site now. So the gamma ray network seems to report it a spike starting several hours ago. What is this spike? Well, we need to put it in context with radiation measurements. Now, anytime there's a spike, you have to be ready for if that radiation detection goes. goes on, you might see a higher value but for the moment, we can look and see what the most intense spike is right next to appears to be in a sensor right next to the containment reactor for its reading at the moment. 65,000 Nano seabirds per hour. What is a Seaver? It's a unit of dosage of radiation. We won't get too much into the different dose types, let's just say it's 65,000 Nano seabirds per hour, what that is is 65 Micro Seavus per hour or 0.065 millisieverts per hour. What that means is it's comparable, each hour in that one hotspot, that seems to be about 10 times higher than other nearby sensors, it means that that sensor seems to be reading a dosage that's about the same as a transatlantic flight dosage to passengers or crew. Now, of course, the transatlantic flight is between six and 10 hours. So that's it's not it's not nothing is something we should watch. It's just a smaller issue than you know, if your site staff and you got occupied because your country's at war, that's, it's more important. So there are elevated readings, the dosages are not very high, and the spike is in a very specific location. We will keep watching it. But that this is not something where even if you dispersed a ton of material if Yeah, like intentional attack, somehow Exactly. Hitting spent nuclear fuel. And if somebody tried to, I don't know, retribution or somebody that tried to get into containment and blow something up, let's just ignore why that would happen, or who would be asked and actually carry that out with it being the most famous radiological site on planet Earth. But let's say they did, then you would have a, the best prepared radiological site on planet Earth besides Fukushima Daiichi in Japan to detect and determine what type of radiation is where and how to clean it up how to address it. So I guess you could say we're prepared. If something weird does get done to the site, we're ready to take a look. But this is a relatively small problem compared to the days and even years after the accident itself when Chernobyl served as an active worksite not just for the cleanup, but for the operating plan. So I think it's pretty safe to say, Chernobyl is not our concern here for radiological hazards. It's a concern for the occupational hazards of either being taken over by a foreign occupier if you're a site worker, or if you're a site if you're an occupier. And that comes under shelling if it forces repulse the attack and drive the Russian forces back north to the border.

Chris Keefer  9:07  

just clarify one more thing for me as well. I mean, this is nuclear material from the accident. It's been sitting there for almost 40 years.

Mark Nelson  9:15  

Careful, we don't nuclear material from the accident is not necessarily what some reports are saying was hit that would be spent fuel from the operating power plant, the power plant operated for about 20 years and so it has been drilled it had to be taken out and cooled and stored. These would be the types of things that were in you know, that thick, sturdy canisters. Small amounts of slightly radioactive fission product gases could build up and depending on how it was damaged, some heavier isotopes may have escaped but again, there's a lot of is a game of is that there's a fog of war right now. We don't know for sure. It's just according to these readings. The health issue is for the The people on the site and it's that it's worse than not the radiation.

Chris Keefer  10:04  

Yeah, I don't think there's any point in speculating a lot more. But good, good to get that cleared up and get a bit of an accurate picture of what is happening as of 15 minutes ago. Rapidly changing situation, should we pivot to the operating nuclear plants?

Mark Nelson  10:20  

Yeah, let's do it. In fact, you know, we're this is a weird, weird time, Chris, we set it at the start. Let's say it again, we're watching live data from the grid from the electricity grid that has not been targeted, it has not apparently been bombed or cut off or clipped. It's not clear whether that situation will stay. If one side or another feels they're losing, and they want to go scorched earth, it's not clear what it means that the grid is still on. Even though one country has been invaded by another. I can't say that I can make a lot of a lot of sense out of it. But that's the situation we have. Why am I concerned about that grid going off. Besides the fact that electricity working or not matters a lot as a humanitarian situation for a country of 10s of millions of people, it matters because connection to the grid is what allows a nuclear plant to function normally and to be assured of safety. So just as an example, at Fukushima Daiichi, you had a plant with a way to low seawall be hit by the shockwaves from an earthquake that shut the plant off shut the reactors off as much as we could tell, automatic cooling systems started cooling the reactor, then the the wave hit and wiped out what was left of the grid the plant is disconnected from outside power, their backup generators, big diesel generators were flooded, they were in too low that led to a lack of ability to keep the still hot decaying, I mean, the heat was decaying. Once you turn off a reactor immediately it goes from 100% power if that's where you were to about 5% That 5% declines hourly declines every moment but hour by hour until within a few days you're at a very very tiny fraction of original heat in the reactor core. But you still got to cool it or it can start to melt what happened in Fukushima is that they fit they lost the ability to cool it and the cores of several of the reactors melted the the violent visuals are going to be something that's it's it's not probably something that can happen in these reactors because different type of reactor different type of containment handled differently. So what I mean by handled differently well every nuclear plant in Ukraine knows that there's a war on they know why they're up and when they need to shut down they will be ready for this situation. It's even if something immediately shuts off the grid or let's say rockets started attacking the nuclear plant shut off is gonna happen that would happen right? Then it's the response time does the Corps Stay cool? It does water keeps circulating through the core even though the reactors have shut off the control rods have dropped the reaction has stopped still in the fuel. There's still some heat from a little bit of delayed delayed neutrons in the reactor and also then for a much longer period just the various isotopes continuing to break down over time

Chris Keefer  13:41  

what you're describing it at Fukushima is this I guess so called Total Station blackout when there's there's no power front coming from the grid. And in their case their backup power wasn't there. I guess their batteries ran the cooling for a little while and then there was nothing were there. Post Fukushima upgrades made I guess it plants around the world to like this question of a total station blackout became something that was considered I think around the world were adjustments made to make sure there's a resilient backup in place in case the grid goes down in Ukraine.

Mark Nelson  14:10  

So I definitely know the most about the American situation. Yes, extremely intense back ups upgrades were made every nuclear plant so I'll probably be able to come back maybe tomorrow with much more specific details on what was done to run it ski or read now or South Ukraine or zapper Russia plan those are the four plants that are all using one of two different sizes of Soviet then Russian v v e r v their reactors that is the same type of reactor as the Pressurized Water Reactor in it's like two thirds of American reactors are P W R type which is our word for what in Russia is that the V R type that type reactor took over all new reactors after the damage at Chernobyl, the Soviet Union stopped building the Chernobyl type reactor. Yeah, right and just build the PW Rs. So I will need to get back to you on this specific changes made to those units. The key the really big thing that matters to me in this story, and I know it matters to the folks on the ground is just being in a state of emergency readiness, expecting the grids of need to turn off, it means they've got at this point, what 24 We're going to be going on 36 hours of knowledge of needing to be ready for a station blackout. This is really critical time. That's time that that Fukushima just didn't have. And this is not going to be a situation where you have absolutely massive total devastation to everything around there. Really, there's a lot of Russian forces attacking but that's still there's still not you can't quite compare what this overwhelming tsunami and colossal earthquake was compared to even if Russia for reasons that I don't know, they haven't even attacked that the very vulnerable grid, they decide to start attacking What if they captured the country would be their nuclear plants, not saying that's going to happen? Or certainly not that is good, just that if you're an occupying army, what are you doing attacking a nuclear plant? Well, but that's the level of preparation that the plant directors have to have. That's the level of thinking that they have to have. But it's not just that 2436 hours warning that there's an act of invasion. Ukraine's been on a war footing for a really long time. So I hope to be able to come back to you with details of what Ukraine has specifically done in response to this war footing since 2014. To secure emergency shutdown and emergency cooling of their plants God forbid if necessary,

Chris Keefer  17:04  

right. And up until now all the plants are still in Ukrainians hands there's there's not been a hostile takeover.

Mark Nelson  17:11  

Okay, so the working plants obviously not Chernobyl. We covered that. i We need to check and refresh on Twitter. The various accounts following the military's progress coming up from the south Zaporizhzhya nuclear plant is the one I've got my eye on. It's the it's the plant that's quite close to the Crimean peninsula, about four hour drive north. Last I checked Russian armies were circling around from Crimea to to take one of the biggest cities in the SouthEast of Ukraine, Morocco. And in that process, they're getting closer and closer does operation nuclear plant that is six V verse 1000. So about a six gigawatt plant, colossal facility. And we will see in the coming hours how it whether the Russian arm division that armored divisions have advanced as far as separation.

Chris Keefer  18:14  

Did you have anything else to add on on this file? Are we getting come too far into speculation? Is a more you wanted to to address on the topic of the operating plants?

Mark Nelson  18:21  

Yeah, let's let's go away from the operating plants in just a few seconds more broadly. We have nuclear plants as tactical objects in war. We have an occupation of the single most famous, most infamous nuclear site on planet Earth at Chernobyl. Will this lead to more nuclear fear? or less nuclear fair? Will this lead to more nuclear plants or fewer nuclear plants? We've already heard today about countries canceling Russian nuclear plant deals, we're talking deals that are billions of dollars and had take 510 years to develop in some cases just being canceled overnight, for I understand, but is that that would be potentially the loss of a nuclear plant? Is this new scary world going to be one that reacts away from or towards nuclear energy? I suspect towards because it's clear that there's a reason why a country in as much danger as Ukraine with as painful a memory in history with nuclear energy as Ukraine is tonight the most nuclear dependent country on planet Earth? It's because when all the chips are down, you must have the best and the best energy sources nuclear. Its smallest, it's the most controlled. It's the least waste. It's its life. When your life's in threat,

Chris Keefer  20:02  

I mean, I think it begs talking about the other other nuclear plants in play here outside of the country. You mentioned that there's plants being canceled. I think Finland made that announcement. Earlier today. I want to pull you over briefly to Europe, though. Belgium, Germany, any ideas about or any hints at changes in opinion on on their Phase outs, given how dependent they are on on gas in terms of making that transition? And this new, this new dynamic, we're rushing gases got a pretty big appearances problem, pretty big marketing problem right now. Still flowing, it's still flowing, it's still being bought, right? Germany and Italy are resisting those ultimate sanctions,

Mark Nelson  20:52  

there's gonna be a lot of backseat judging, both deserved and undeserved. I do not know what I would have done if I were an ambitious German leader, with a more or less anti nuclear population, and an easy path to just getting Russian guy. I mean, I would like to think that I would stand up for what's right. But I don't know. It's not clear what Germany is going to do. Belgium, I think Belgium is going to have a really hard time, they were already going to have a hard time getting rid of 50% of their electricity supply in three years. Chris is not just pretending to replace it with renewables like they tried to pull off in California, Germany, like not any chance no one thought there was a chance the Green Party backed down from protesting gas in order to make sure that natural gas could be infrastructure, billions of dollars 10s of billions of dollars worth of subsidies for billions of dollars worth of natural gas infrastructure added to the country that does not produce natural gas. In order to get rid of an existing relatively cheap, low carbon energy source that is just probably not going to be tenable anymore. We're already hearing statements from Tina have understanding about her uncomfortableness moving forward with this phase out. Now she's sometimes phrasing it as Oh, this proves that uranium is bad too, because we have to import uranium. I get it she has no idea what the units are. She doesn't know what the numbers are the costs that it's she's just she's, you know, green energy minister to beat all green energy ministers like, like, proud of knowing no numbers at all. So she's gonna say, Oh, well, we have to import our uranium, okay, it's like single truck per reactor per year. That's a joke. That's not you could stockpile 100 years, if you needed to have uranium fuel, within a few years. You can a single a single hedge fund has started a uranium fuel, you know, repository where they're stacking up millions of tons of uranium in a few months that you just can, it's really tiny, it's really heavy, you just can store it so that those weird statements aside that uranium doesn't count as as your own energy, because you have to import a few bundles of it per year. I think she's going to have a very hard time with her coalition partners. And I think she's going to have a very hard time with the Belgian public. And look, everybody is watching Germany and Italy twist in the wind and say, trying to not disturb the flow of fossil fuels, which is unabated. In fact, natural gas shipments are up today, compared to yesterday, from Russia through Ukraine, Ukraine through the natural gas pipelines. Yeah, no, Ukraine's not using that gas, at least not directly. They're not using any of that gas. They're just there's a pipeline going through them. And countries to their West are buying the gas, right. Those contracts are long term contracts that typically include options or I mean, automatic increases in flow, if the spot price that is whatever the price is this moment, if that price gets higher than that can drive up more, more flow automatically with the terms of the contract that's happening. It's very clear that Germany is constrained by meeting the fuel. Yeah, yeah. I guess now there are other countries that need that fuel a lot that seem less constrained, but they don't matter as much as Germany when it comes to vetoing policy at the EU level. Now, look, we we could we could probably stop there on those topics, because we've put out a lot of material over the last year and a half on these subjects, specifically, the natural gas issue. We have an episode on that. The Germany, Russia, gas geopolitics. That was before the energy crisis started. And we mainly focused on Nord Stream to not not Nord Stream, one that can didn't used to flow full power right now. But people can make the adjustments and read, read the story forward in time themselves. We also have a episode on Russian nuclear why? Why are almost every Why is it almost every time there's a nuclear deal, it's a Russian plant that's getting that's winning that deal and getting sold. We have an episode on that. I think we've covered the nuclear safety critical issues to the extent we can tonight. And if there are updates that are recovering, I'm sure we'll be back and I'll get the information for you on what were the post Fukushima adaptations, if any, to the emergency shutdown capability at the vvr plants, the viverra plants in Ukraine that are online?

Chris Keefer  25:48  

Well, obviously a very rapidly evolving situation. Mark, thanks for paying such close attention, keeping us updated on Twitter and making time for for us on the Decouple podcast. Appreciate you coming on. 

Mark Nelson  25:58  

Sure, Chris.

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