Chernobyl fires: what could go wrong with nuclear weapons

Chernobyl fires: what could go wrong with nuclear weapons

Chernobyl fires: what could go wrong with nuclear weapons

By Mr Marc Finaud, Associate Fellow, Global Fellowship Initiative and Former Head of Arms Control and Disarmement

For the past several weeks, forest fires have been raging in the vicinity of the abandoned Chernobyl nuclear reactor and waste storage facility in Ukraine. Officially, the level of radiation in the region remained “within normal limits”, although the unusual release of Cesium-137 radioactive particles was confirmed by Dr Lassina Zerbo, Executive Secretary of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Organization, in a tweet. Dr Zerbo was quick, however, to reassure his audience that this raised no health concerns at this stage.

Similar wildfires have occurred in 2015 and 2018 close to the Chernobyl site –­­ a worrisome development due to drought caused by climate change. For some experts, this “fact does not bode well for the future, and requires better planning for worst-case scenarios”.

Speaking of worst-case scenarios connected to climate change, one such outline envisages the catastrophic consequences of the detonation of nuclear weapons in a limited war that would lead to nuclear winter and world famine, with up to two billion fatalities arising due to massive clouds of smoke and soot spreading in the atmosphere, blocking sunlight and leading to dramatic drops in temperature.

But the effect of nuclear weapons on the global climate is not the only risk. There is also the potential, and very real, impact of the climate crisis on nuclear weapons. First, the manufacture of nuclear weapons requires mining and processing of natural uranium. In Australia, during the devastation wrought by wildfires caused by unprecedented drought this austral summer, the fact that uranium mines could have been affected, leading to the spread of radioactive particles in the atmosphere, was a shock to many. In fact, such hazards exist in all countries where uranium is mined (India, Niger, Kazakhstan, the United States).

Where nuclear weapons or related materials exist, the risk is even higher. In the United States, forest fires caused by drought threatened the Los Alamos nuclear weapon laboratory for the second time in 11 years. That facility is host to 20,000 drums filled with plutonium waste and the fire dispersed radioactive smoke and ashes. According to one expert, a power failure in that laboratory could have the equivalent effects of the 2011 Fukushima disaster. In 2018, another blaze broke out in California near the site of a former nuclear weapons testing site that had suffered partial meltdown in 1959 and remained contaminated. Activists claimed that some toxins have been released into the surrounding environment as a result of the wildfire.

Aside from the dangers of drought-induced fires, nuclear weapon facilities can also fall victim to other climate change-related extreme weather events. A 2016 study posited that, by 2050, rising ocean levels and associated floods would affect most naval bases on the East Coast of the United States and the Gulf of Florida, including nuclear submarine bases, forcing mass relocation. The largest naval base in the world, in Norfolk, Virginia, has already suffered high tides and hurricanes causing millions of dollars’ worth of damage. In the Marshall Islands, where the United States conducted over 100 atmospheric and underwater nuclear tests, a concrete dome containing the equivalent of 53 Olympic swimming pools of radioactive waste is threatened by flooding and collapse. The island-state could become, in the words of a US academic “a victim of the two greatest threats facing humanity – nuclear weapons and climate change”.

Disclaimer: The views, information and opinions expressed in the written publications are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect those shared by the Geneva Centre for Security Policy or its employees. The GCSP is not responsible for and may not always verify the accuracy of the information contained in the written publications submitted by a writer.

Marc Finaud is a former French diplomat who was seconded to the GCSP from 2004 to 2013 and is now a staff member. At the GCSP, Mr Finaud was leading activities related to Arms Proliferation.