Vladimir Slivyak at anti-nuclear protest in Moscow in 2011.

A war that brought Chernobyl back from the past

Essays 26.04.2022

By 2021 Laureate Vladimir Slivyak

The world has approached yet another anniversary of the worst nuclear reactor accident in history, which happened 36 years ago today in the Soviet Union. The fourth unit of the Chernobyl nuclear plant exploded resulting in a radioactive cloud that passed through Europe leaving contaminated spots after itself. Hundreds of thousands of so-called liquidators were sent by the Soviet government to Chernobyl to prevent further radiation. Many of them died.

A large part of the discussion about Chernobyl’s legacy has been focused on casualties. In urgent need of justification of its further development, the nuclear industry claimed that just a few dozen people died in this accident. Opponents, such as world-famous Russian scientist Alexey Yablokov, insisted that up to one million people suffered in different ways from Chernobyl. But what we were sure about was that we were talking about lessons from the past. But then the war in Ukraine started. It brought back fears of the use of nuclear weapons as well as of new nuclear accidents.

Russian troops attacked some Ukrainian nuclear power plants, including the Chernobyl site where no energy is produced anymore but where many tons of nuclear waste is still stored. This waste needs constant cooling – unless we want to repeat what happened 36 years ago. The power supply was broken but then fortunately restored; a new accident was averted. However, as long as there is a war in Ukraine, the risk of a new nuclear accident remains extremely high.

Russian troops are careless about nuclear and radiation safety. What could be a more shocking confirmation of this than seeing soldiers digging in the most radioactively contaminated forest on Earth in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. For those soldiers, the Chernobyl accident is not something from the past but a new reality.

There are a few reasons why this terrible war started. But probably the most important one is that Russian President Vladimir Putin had enough money to go into war.

This money came from selling fossil and nuclear fuel to other countries. First and foremost, to the European Union – the main trading partner for Putin’s regime. This trade is still going on right now despite the war. Money that Putin gets from fuel trade is turned into bullets, guns, and missiles.

According to the campaign “Defuel Russia’s war machine,” which my organization Ecodefense and the German NGO Urgewald have launched, Europe paid almost 100 billion Euros for Russian fuels last year alone. Before the war on Ukraine, Russia was supplying the EU with 45% of its gas, 46% of its coal, and 27% of its oil imports. But that’s not all. Russia also supplies about 20% of the nuclear fuel used in European nuclear reactors.

One of companies that has for a very long time cooperated with Russia in the nuclear fuel supply chain is Urenco. It sent to Russia about 45,000 tons of uranium tails, a waste remaining from the uranium enrichment process, from its German Gronau facility alone. It was very convenient to set up the dumping site for radioactive waste in another country. Yet, Russian Rosatom was sending uranium to Urenco. At the same time, Framatome and other French nuclear companies also cooperated with Rosatom. In such ways, during the last two decades, Russia got deeply involved with EU nuclear fuel supplies, increasing its dependence on Putin’s regime.

To some, it may look like Russia was a reliable partner until one day Putin suddenly decided to start a war. But there were signs showing that this path had been chosen long ago.

Over the last 15 years, Putin went to war against Georgia in 2008 and against Ukraine – first in 2014 and then again in 2022. He demolished democratic institutions, repressed civil society and silenced independent media. Everything that could become a barrier to dictatorship, everyone who could raise their voice against war, every bit of opposition got under attack by Russian authorities.

For many European governments and companies, it was convenient to turn a blind eye on all these developments in Russia. They enjoyed working with Putin who was a reliable supplier of all the fuel Europe needed. And he could also pay very well for a friendship. Take Hungary, for example, which received a 10-billion-euro loan to build a Russian nuclear plant on their territory. Shockingly, even despite the war on Ukraine, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban wants to proceed with the construction. This is where greed and populism brought us – a full-scale war in Europe in the 21st century.

Putin has worked very hard for a long time to create European dependence on Russian fuel. He doesn’t believe Europe will manage without his natural resources. But there is only one way to avoid an even bigger war in Europe: cut European dependence on Russian supplies, deprive the Russian regime of the funds needed to continue the war. Even if it takes a lot of effort and enormous resources – full embargo on Russian fuels must be introduced urgently, replaced urgently and solely by renewable energy.

About the Author: Vladimir Slivyak, who received the Right Livelihood Award in 2021, is an environmental campaigner for the Russian organisation Ecodefense and the German NGO Urgewald.

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