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Russia’s dangerous potential to unleash ecocide across Europe

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Hostile occupation of nuclear sites could end in disaster

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Russia has devastated vast portions of Ukraine and killed or kidnapped thousands of civilians, but Russian “ecocide is now a tool of war,” said researcher Dr. Sasha Dovzhyk at a recent conference I attended at the Ukrainian Institute of America in New York City.

Dovzhyk said Russian planes, or artillery, have scattered small landmines, called “little petals” (also called PFM-1s), across 156,000 square kilometres, contaminating the equivalent to one-quarter of the country or four times the size of Switzerland. She added that removal will take years and cost billions and until that’s accomplished hundreds of thousands of people and animals will be injured or killed.

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“Scattered from aircraft or delivered by mortars, the “petals” spin through the air, bite into the earth and explode upon contact with as little as 5 kilograms of weight…. Hectare by hectare, Russia’s invasion turns barren the country which contains almost a quarter of the world’s chernozem, a highly fertile soil…. Even after the contaminants are removed, the toxins they release will affect the fields’ fertility for years,” Dovzhyk wrote in CNN Opinion.

Russia has turned Ukraine into the world’s biggest minefield. This is not the first environmental disaster perpetrated against Ukraine. In 1986, Kremlin incompetence caused a nuclear reactor to explode at Chornobyl, spreading radioactivity across the country and Europe. Now that area, 90 kilometres from Kyiv, is a no-go zone and a massive steel and concrete structure, or sarcophagus, contains the reactor.

Now, Vladimir Putin doubles down on that catastrophe. In March 2022, right after the Feb. 24 invasion, Russia occupied Chornobyl’s no-go zone, then days later took over Ukraine’s biggest nuclear complex, the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP), also the largest reactor in Europe. Russian military officials have overseen its operations ever since.

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The United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have been granted occasional access to monitor the ZNPP’s operations. But, in a recent report, the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency wrote: “The IAEA observers at ZNPP reported that they continued to be denied timely and appropriate access to all areas important to nuclear safety and security.”

There are concerns that maintenance is inadequate and that there isn’t enough power and water to keep reactors cool at all times. Testing and inspections are also a problem, and staff numbers at the facility have fallen from 11,500 workers to 4,500.

Then, on June 6, 2023, the Russian-occupied Nova Kakhovka dam was blown up — 80 miles away from ZZNP. This reduced the water levels in the reservoir that cools ZNPP’s reactors, and water must now be pumped in from local wells. (Experts concluded that Russian forces likely blew up a segment of the dam to hinder the planned Ukrainian counter-offensive, but Russian authorities have denied the accusation.)

Putin now controls Ukraine’s largest nuclear facility and the integrity of the Chernobyl sarcophagus which prevents the escape of radiation. This potential eco-terrorism is on an unimagined level: If just ZPNN explodes or is blown up, a meltdown would cause a massive fire and explosion that would release radiation over a vast area of Europe.

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The IAEA’s director general, Rafael Mariano Grossi, warned in an April 2023 news release: “We are living on borrowed time when it comes to nuclear safety and security at the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant. Unless we take action to protect the plant, our luck will sooner or later run out, with potentially severe consequences for human health and the environment.”

And the odds of catastrophe increased after the destruction of the nearly Nova Khakovka dam. Dovzhyk said this was the “first ever” intentional dam explosion.

“Ecocide on this scale should be a crime in the International Criminal Court and isn’t yet,” she said.

Ukraine is scarred with landmines, but also with pockmarks from bombing attacks.

“Two dozen experts who spoke with Reuters, including soil scientists, farmers, grain companies and analysts, said it would take decades to fix the damage to Europe’s breadbasket — including contamination, mines and destroyed infrastructure — and that global food supplies could suffer for years to come. Shelling has also upset the delicate ecosystems of microorganisms that turn soil materials into crop nutrients such as nitrogen while tanks have compressed the earth, making it harder for roots to flourish, the scientists say,” reported Indian broadcast network NDTV.

Recommended from Editorial

Putin’s war is barbaric and uncivilized. The Ukrainian diaspora, the G7, the UN and world’s environmental movements must condemn and stop Russia from perpetrating the biggest ecocide in history.

Financial Post

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