5 quick questions on Chernobyl and radioactivity with a professor of radiochemistry

By Cathrine Glosli

The war in Ukraine has led to fears that nuclear reactors will be damaged and lead to emissions of radioactive material. NMBU’s professor Deborah Oughton says that the attacks hardly pose a major threat to us in Norway. Here she answers five questions about the situation.

What are people afraid of?

Radioactive discharges from one of Ukraine's reactors or many nuclear facilities. Nuclear power generates about half of Ukraine's electricity. The country has 15 operational power reactors, as well as a number of nuclear facilities related to waste, research, industry and medicine.

Is the fear justified?

No. The Ukrainian power plants have a reinforced concrete container around the reactor, several safety systems and separate cooling loops. They are significantly safer than the Chernobyl reactor that was damaged in 1986. That type of accident is unlikely. However, there is still a risk associated with leakage of coolant from the reactors, or damage to containers containing radioactive waste.

But I have read about elevated levels of radioactivity in Chernobyl – is that not a cause for concern?

On February 25, elevated levels were recorded in Chernobyl, and it received a lot of media coverage.

Both authorities and research communities follow these areas closely. We agree that this increase is probably due to increased military activity.

Heavy vehicles and increased traffic have most likely disturbed already contaminated soil. In other words, it is not "fresh" emissions, but "old" emissions that have been undisturbed until now. The measurement network in Europe and Norway is extremely sensitive. We can detect increases well below those that pose some health or environmental risk. It is therefore important not to take the figures out of context and overreact.

What is the biggest risk at the moment?

The nuclear risk for us here in Norway is currently very low. The war has triggered one of the biggest humanitarian crises since the end of World War II. At present, attacks on residential areas and hospitals are a far more immediate source of harm to the people of Ukraine than the risk of attacks on nuclear facilities.

What do you think the individual Norwegian should do?

It feeling of helplessness is difficult for everyone. Most people want to do something, whether it is sending emergency aid or building a bunker in their garden.
The way the situation is now most important people can do, if they want to contribute, is to support humanitarian measures to help the Ukrainians.
In addition, I would encourage everyone to take media breaks from time to time. We have lived with Covid-19 for over two years, and then a new crisis comes in the wake of it. It's easy to immerse oneself into the news feed, and that is to no help to anyone.

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