Author: Asaf Hazut
The Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) is in the heart of the fighting zone between Russian and Ukrainian armed forces. In the event of a nuclear disaster – how can a state protect its citizens and armed forces, and how can citizens protect themselves?
Recently, the electric power supply to ZNPP had been cut off, thereby removing the last lines of defense preventing a nuclear meltdown that may affect large parts of the population in Europe. While Russia and Ukraine continue blaming one another for the shelling that has damaged structures and brought down power lines essential for the cooling of the six reactors of the plant, the NPP has shifted into so-called “Island mode,” during which the reactor uses self-generated electricity that is sufficient for cooling the reactor’s core and supporting crucial systems. However, it’s impossible to maintain this level of functioning over time, since the use of “Island mode” exposes the other facility systems to malfunctions and disruptions.
In the event of a radioactive disaster in Zaporizhzhia, the countries that would immediately be affected are Moldova, Romania, Bulgaria, and of course Ukraine itself. There are other European countries whose radioactive exposure levels would depend on wind directions and speed. Are these countries in particular, and Europe as a whole, properly prepared for such a catastrophe?
It’s fair to say that a radioactive disaster can occur at any given time, however, during war the fear of such a disaster increases due to unstable conditions in the environment, shelling and firing of weapons near the reactor, identification errors or falling of a stray missile, and other implied threats increase the risk of deliberate shelling with the intent of causing environmental damage and a heavy blow that will affect the rest of the campaign.
The damage or meltdown of a nuclear reactor that produces electricity may release pollutants such as the radioactive and dangerous isotope Iodine 131, which can be carried in the air for very long distances
Those who are old enough can remember the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and its severe repercussions all over the European continent. Residents in a 30km radius were evacuated, many became ill with radiation syndrome, and in the long term, an increase in the incidence of cancer has been observed.
The biggest challenge with radioactive pollutants is that they carry a radioactive charge that stays in the air and is very difficult to get rid of. The radioactive charge “settles” on dust and water particles and spreads with them over large areas; it sinks to the ground, from which it can be dispersed with the help of the wind or penetrate and contaminate the soil and groundwater.
Anything and anyone living in an environment affected by radioactive waste particles risks contamination of their organs and therefore severe health risks. In the short term, this entails radiation syndrome, and in the long term, an increased risk of cancer. A high level of exposure, without proper safeguards or treatment, will lead to death. Furthermore, the radioactive charge damages skin membranes causes burns, and penetrate the body through the eyes, and therefore it is crucial to protect the face and the body.
There are two main defense measures that can be applied to a large population. Medical treatment – protects internal organs from the damage of radiation that penetrates the body through the respiratory system, and protective wearable gear – prevents the contaminated particles from entering the body and adds an external layer of protection for the skin and eyes.
Medical treatment – an urgent and crucial first response in order to minimize radiation damage.
Residents living in the vicinity of Zaporizhzhia receive Lugol pills from the authorities, and in the event of a nuclear disaster, residents are instructed to take Lugol at a set dosage (determined by body weight) for ten days, followed by antibiotic treatment. Lugol is a mixture of Potassium Iodide (KI). The iodine in the pills floods the thyroid gland and impedes the absorption of the radioactive isotope that is released from the damaged reactor. However, the iodine treatment only provides partial protection, since it reduces radiation syndrome but doesn’t completely prevent health injuries. Furthermore, while the medication might help protect against internal organ damage, it doesn’t protect the skin and eyes.
Wearable protective gear – designed to protect the skin, face and eyes against burns and penetration of radioactive particles.
Radioactive particles are dispersed everywhere during a radioactive disaster. Protecting the respiratory system by wearing a full-face mask with an NBC filter, prevents the inhalation of contaminated particles, and therefore provides better protection from radiation damages, and allows people to evacuate the affected area in a safe manner.
Protecting the eyes and respiratory system from radioactive particles will prevent the penetration of such particles into the bloodstream, and therefore prevent health injuries. Following evacuation from the exposure site, one can wash and change clothes, which would neutralize the chances of future injury.
Both of these treatment measures complete one another, but using a full-face NBC mask has the great advantage of completely preventing the inhalation and penetration through the eyes of radioactive particles. Thus, in residential areas adjacent to nuclear reactors, security forces often give residents Lugol pills as a first response treatment, as well as protective gear that would allow a safer evacuation from the disaster area.
Therefore, the most recommended strategy for areas adjacent to nuclear reactors is to provide residents with both medication and protective gear, at the very least. Both civilians and security forces should be provided with these measures in order to provide the opportunity for safer and faster evacuation in the event of a disaster.
Protective gear has to include a full-face NBC mask, and an NBC filter for the civilian population and the security and emergency forces must also be provided with a powered air pump for a more comfortable airflow that would allow for continuous and prolonged work time.
Full protective NBC gear includes:
Gas mask – it’s important to choose a gas mask that’s been tested and approved by the proper authorities. There are masks with a hood that fit over the head and hair, and there are masks that are specifically designed for children and infants.
Air supply pump – the pump sucks in air from the environment, filters it, and pushes the clean air into the mask. This makes breathing easier and is specifically designed for those who need to be on the move (rescue forces), as well as those who suffer from exhaustion, illness, or poor health, as well as children and the elderly.
Clothing – protective clothing is mostly worn by security forces. If you can’t get a protective suit, you should wear long-sleeved clothes, gloves, a hat, and boots. You should protect your face and eyes as much as possible.
Lugol – you should take the medication as soon as you identify a radioactive event, according to the recommended dosage and instructions.
1. Seek shelter until the moment of evacuation: stay indoors, close windows and doors, seal all possible air gaps, and use food and drink that hasn’t been exposed to radiation.
2. Put all the clothes and shoes you were wearing during exposure into a plastic bag. Seal it tightly and discard the bag. Thoroughly wash your body and hair. Bring your pets indoors and thoroughly wash them.
3. Take Lugol pills according to the recommended dosage.
4. Put on a gas mask with an NBC filter, preferably with an air pump to ease breathing.
5. It’s important to act according to the official guidelines of the authorities handling the event.