Ukraine energy and civil society organizations called for an end to the “global fossil fuel addiction that feeds Putin’s war machine” Wednesday, less than 48 hours before the advance of that war machine left a fire burning on the site of Europe’s biggest nuclear power plant, the Zaporizhzhia facility in the coastal city of Enerhodar.
“This is a fossil fuel war,” said Ukrainian climate campaigner Svitlana Romanko, zero fossil fuels campaign manager for the Laudato Si’ Movement, addressing a webinar Wednesday for journalists and thought leaders. “Fossil fuels are responsible for 60% of the Russian economy.”
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An accompanying joint statement signed by NGOs within and beyond Ukraine said “Putin’s war machine has been funded, fed, and fuelled by the coal, oil, and gas industries that are driving both the invasion that threatens Ukraine and the climate crisis that threatens humanity’s future.”
The Stand with Ukraine statement calls on European countries, the U.S., Canada, China, India, Japan, South Korea, and other importers of Russian oil and gas to use all non-violent means necessary to restore peace and end Putin’s “egregious murderous aggression.”
The webinar took place not long before initial news reports that one of six reactors at Zaporizhzhia was on fire amid fierce fighting, with elevated levels of radiation reported. Plant spokesperson Andriy Tuz told Ukrainian television the reactor was under renovation, but still contains nuclear fuel, The Associated Press reported.
By early morning, the fire had been extinguished. But not before Ukraine Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted that “Russian army is firing from all sides upon Zaporizhzhia NPP, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe. Fire has already broke out. If it blows up, it will be 10 times larger than Chornobyl! Russians must IMMEDIATELY cease the fire, allow firefighters, establish a security zone!”
“This constitutes an act of global terrorism by Russia,” replied Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael E. Mann.
At one point, citing plant spokesperson Tuz, AP wrote that “firefighters cannot get near the fire because they are being shot at.”
Subsequent updates said the fire was in a training building outside the actual nuclear generating plant, and radiation levels were normal. But President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he had warned leaders of the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, the European Union, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) about the possibility of a nuclear disaster.
“If there is an explosion—that’s the end for everyone,” he said, in what The Associated Press described as an “emotional speech” in the middle of the night. “The end for Europe. The evacuation of Europe.”
“DPM @cafreeland and I just spoke with President @ZelenskyyUa about the horrific attacks at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted after a call with Zelenskyy. “These unacceptable attacks by Russia must cease immediately.”
In Wednesday’s webinar, hosted by the Climate Action Network of Eastern Europe, Caucasus, and Central Asia, all speakers presented from locations within Ukraine.
Romanko called for continuing divestment in fossil-related projects and corporations by energy companies, banks, and others. An accompanying fact sheet cited progress to date: Nord Stream 2 has filed for bankruptcy and laid off staff on the pipeline project from Russia to Germany that was pending certification, Shell is cancelling its joint ventures with Russian-owned Gazprom, BP is abandoning its stake in Rosneft, and Exxon Mobil pulled US$4 billion out of Russian oil and gas.
Romanko also called for an end to imports of Russian petroleum products, citing Canada’s ban. “The world needs to turn its back on Russian oil.”
But more is needed, she said: a global “non-proliferation treaty for fossil fuels,” including a phaseout and a just transition to clean energy. “An end to the fossil fuel era is possible. We can have a better future.”
The joint statement said it is particularly important that Russian natural gas not simply be replaced with liquefied natural gas (LNG) from other countries.
Blocking Russian natural gas exports, which are transported through pipelines, is relatively straightforward, said Olexiy Pasiuk, deputy director of Ecoaction, Ukraine. But Pasiuk acknowledged that a total ban on Russian oil exports will be more difficult to execute because oil is sold into a world market and ownership may change several times between extraction and the end consumer, making the original source hard to identify.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s electricity system has been disconnected from Russia and Belarus, and is now an “island,” dependent on operating nuclear plants for more than 50% of its power. Ukraine’s bid to join the European transmission system should be accelerated, said Kostiantyn Krynytsky, head of energy at Ecoaction. Integration has been approved in principle, but experts are working to address technical issues, he said.
Pasiuk said safety concerns in the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone include ongoing management of spent fuel and the as-yet-unexplained spike in radioactivity. The explanation that tanks at the site are stirring up dust is not consistent with the wet weather and mud, he said. Communications and staff rotation are blocked.
Ukraine’s nuclear regulatory agency has asked the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for “assistance in coordinating activities in relation to the safety of the Chornobyl NPP and other nuclear facilities.”
Before last night’s attack and fire, Ukrainians were already concerned that their operating nuclear plants could be a military target, in violation of IAEA rules. Ukraine’s nuclear fleet is old, including five reactors dating from Soviet times and well past their best-before date. With the lack of investment in other forms of generation, the country’s power grid has become increasingly nuclear-dependent, and the loss of a single plant would deprive the country of 5% of its power, creating “a huge hole in the system,” Pasiuk said.
“After six days of war, it is a miracle that the power system is still operating,” said Krynytsky.
International civil society organizations have written an open letter to the IAEA expressing concern about the safety of Chornobyl and Ukraine’s 15 commercial reactors, including the giant six-reactor Zaporizhzhia plant, which Russians has been claiming is under its control, the IAEA reports. Information is scarce. Radiation data from Chornobyl has not been updated since the morning of February 25.
Beyond Nuclear says all operating reactors are “vulnerable to catastrophic meltdown, even if they are not directly attacked or accidentally hit.” The potential for radioactive emissions from pools containing irradiated fuel rods is an “even greater concern,” the group said. “A nuclear power plant, even under daily routine operations, is not walkaway safe and cannot be abandoned.”
The open letter calls on the IAEA to help ensure safety at the Chornobyl site by determining responsibilities and capabilities, and sending in nuclear technicians if necessary. The IAEA should also ensure open access to safety information about all Ukraine nuclear facilities and ask all its member states to avoid military or other actions that may affect their safety.
Signatories include the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility and the Ontario Clean Air Alliance.
Public fear of radiation—from nuclear bombs or a civilian nuclear facility—has created a “high demand” throughout Europe for potassium iodide pills, the Globe and Mail reports. The pills help to protect the thyroid gland against the uptake of radioactive iodine.