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'I don't think Putin is planning nuclear war'

April 05, 2022 08:46 IST

'When human beings develop these dangerous toys and leave their control in the hands of aggressive megalomaniac politicians, the threat of a nuclear holocaust is always lurking on the horizon.'

IMAGE: Ukrainian soldiers at the abandoned city of Pripyat near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, February 4, 2022. Photograph: Gleb Garanich/Reuters

Russian President Vladimir Putin's warning to use nuclear weapons has presented the world with a terrifying situation.

If this warning of using extreme measures was not shock enough, the situation has only worsened with news that Russian soldiers who were positioned in the Chernobyl power plant have suffered high degrees of radiation forcing them to withdraw from the plant which according to Ukranian sources is back in their hands.

Considering that it was the Russians who had set up several nuclear plants across different regions in the erstwhile Soviet Union, it seems difficult to believe that their soldiers were not aware of the high levels of radiation still found around the Chernobyl nuclear plant which was the site of the worst nuclear disaster in 1986.

Dr R Rajaraman, emeritus professor of theoretical physics at JNU and former co-chair of the International Panel on Fissile Materials, explains the concerns in an exclusive chat with Senior Contributor Rashme Sehgal.

IMAGE: A Ukrainian soldier installs the Ukrainian national flag at a compound in the Chernobyl nuclear power plant premises, April 3, 2022. Photograph: Press service of the Ukrainian Armed Forces General Staff/Handout/Reuters

The Russians seized the Chernobyl power plant on February 24 which was the first day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Five weeks later, it is reported that they have transferred the control of the plant to Ukrainian personnel because their soldiers suffered high degrees of radiation.
Why did the Russian nuclear establishment not warn the Russian army about this radiation threat?

I am surprised that they did not issue such a warning. It is possible that the Russian nuclear scientists cannot reach the military top brass that easily.

There is a scientific aspect to this question as also a political aspect. It is a complicated issue and till the facts are not made public, it is difficult for me sitting in India to provide an answer.

I myself am surprised at why the nuclear establishment had not issued several warnings to their military counterparts.

Why was the bombing allowed to take place in the neighbourhood of the reactors?

Why were soldiers, who have no expertise on radioactivity, allowed to roam around the compound where these reactors had been kept or why has the handing over of the plant back to Ukrainian experts taken place are all key issues this conflict has raised to which we will await answers from the respective governments.

The troops had entered the most contaminated part of the Chernobyl exclusion zone -- the Red Forest -- without the required protective gear and thereby exposed themselves to radioactive dust.
Energoatom, Ukraine's state power company, said the soldiers received 'significant doses' of radiation after digging trenches in the Red Forest and that they 'panicked at the first sign of illness'.
How serious would this be?
This news has frightened people in many parts of the world including India given that we too are pushing for the setting up of more nuclear power plants?

This need not frighten people in India or around the world. There is excessive paranoia about nuclear radiation.

Sure, radiation exposure is not good for us. And if you go tromping around abandoned exploded reactors, or digging trenches near them, you are asking for trouble. But that is not enough reason to abandon nuclear energy.

Barring accidents, which can happen in any industry, nuclear reactors in normal operation do not emit dangerous radiation. We should remember the radiation. We need to remember the Bhopal gas leak. Have we stopped all chemical industry because of that accident?

But nuclear weapons are a different matter. They are far, far, more dangerous and there is no need to have them at all, if political leaders could get their act together.

IMAGE: The abandoned city of Pripyat near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. Photograph: Gleb Garanich/Reuters

The Red Forest surrounding the decommissioned Chernobyl nuclear power plant, which was the site of the world's worst nuclear disaster in 1986, remains a very contaminated zone.
Some Ukrainian workers working at the plant said that the Russian troops had kicked up clouds of radioactive dust while driving through the forest. They also said some of the Russian soldiers had no idea they were in a radioactive area.
Even though the Chernobyl power plant was fully decommissioned after the 1986 nuclear accident, most of the work around the site is mostly directed toward decontamination.
How unsafe is this area?

Some radioactive nuclei remain active emitters of radiation for a long time, sometimes for decades, centuries and even millennia. That is why storing nuclear waste is a difficult matter And that is why it has to be buried deep into the ground.

The surface soil after the nuclear accident in 1986 had been removed.

The IAEA said it was investigating reports of the exposure and would send experts to the plant in coming days. How will the agency do this in the middle of all this fighting?

The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed on Thursday evening that Russian troops had transferred control of the plant.

This was confirmed by Yevhen Kramarenko, the head of Ukraine's agency in charge of the exclusion zone. I think both sides would allow safe passage to experts investigating radiation exposure.

It is in everyone's interest. That Russian troops have handed over the plant to the nuclear authorities indicates they now understand the problem.

Some Ukrainian employees at the public council at the state agency of Ukraine for exclusion zone management said the soldiers had fled while 'irradiated' and were bused to a medical facility in Gomel, Belarus.
I need to ask you this question again: Why did they fail to follow basic rules such as wearing protective gear? These rules are mandatory across the globe.

These basic rules are intended for scientists, other workers and visitors to nuclear sites in normal peace time. Soldiers at war don't know these things. Some of them also don't respect other rules, such as not to plunder, rape or kill civilians.

Some Ukrainian officials claim that Russian troops looted and destroyed a specialist laboratory containing highly active radioactive samples from the decommissioned nuclear plant.
The lab contained 'highly active samples and samples of radionuclides' that are in Russian hands. these officials allege.

Could be. But these samples are not diamonds or crown jewels. Confiscating them is no big deal compared to other losses in war.

Ukraine's President Zelenskyy has accused Russia of using the exclusion zone around Chernobyl to prepare new attacks.
Energoatom CEO Petro Kotin said the International Atomic Energy Agency should use its influence to ensure Russian nuclear officials do not interfere in the operation of nuclear plants occupied by Russian forces. How far is this feasible?

Only to the extent to which Russians want to observe norms of cooperative behaviour.

IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi has just returned from a trip to Ukraine and Russia where he held discussions with officials on both sides to ensure safety of the nuclear facilities.
He said he would soon head an assistance and support mission to Ukraine's Chernobyl nuclear power plant 'as soon as possible' to help ensure the facility's safety. Why did he say that?

I don't know why he might have said that. I am sure that Ukrainian nuclear experts are quite competent. It is possible that because of war conditions the full quota of experts, and nuclear managers are not available at Chernobyl and that maintenance equipment may have been damaged.

Vladimir Putin has issued yet another warning about not hesitating to launch a nuclear attack if his nation faces an existential threat. Is this just sabre rattling or is it more serious given that the war is only escalating and showing no signs of diminishment?

It is only sabre rattling. It is just one more statement made to shake up the world.

He is not going to frighten anyone in the West with these statements. I do not think he is planning a nuclear war. His military would not allow him to do so.

Is there a possibility that he could use tactical nuclear weapons if the war goes against Russia? His nuclear ballistic submarines were put on high alert in the first week of the Russian attack.

I don't know if most strategic pundits, let alone the general public, understand the difference between strategic and tactical weapons.

Tactical weapons generally are intended for use at shorter range, but are not necessarily less powerful. Any tactical missile today would be far more devastating than the bomb that fell on Hiroshima.

So if Putin chooses to use 'tactical nukes', it will be as much of a catastrophe as using his submarines. A nuke is a nuke is a nuke.

Russia is known to have the largest nuclear stockpile in the world. Are we reaching a nuclear Armageddon?

We are no closer to Armageddon than several times in the past. When human beings develop these dangerous toys and leave their control in the hands of aggressive megalomaniac politicians, the threat of a nuclear holocaust is always lurking on the horizon.

The largeness of the Russian arsenal is not the main issue. Other nations with smaller arsenals still pose a deadly threat. There have been many other instances in the past, some worse than the present one.

Ukraine is known to have a lot of nuclear installations. The Russian forces surrounded and took over the Chernobyl nuclear plant. Have the other nuclear plants also been dismantled?

When the Soviet Union broke down, the other countries of the former Soviet Union had nuclear weapons. These were all brought back to Russia as part of the Nunn Luger Act whereby the US Congress helped provide funding to ensure the safety of these nuclear materials and weapons so that it all could be accounted for.

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