Energy & Environment

How Russia’s invasion of Ukraine ‘holds the environment hostage’ 

Kyiv, Ukraine's capital, is divided by the Dnipro River.
Associated Press-Efrem Lukatsky
Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, is divided by the Dnipro River. Russian missiles reportedly targeted a reservoir along the waterway; damage to such infrastructure could cause severe flooding that would disrupt the environment for years to come. 

Russia is targeting a number of sites in its invasion of Ukraine that could cause short- and long-term environmental disasters if they are destroyed or damaged.   

Russian forces that began an invasion of Ukraine on Thursday have targeted an oil refinery near Kyiv, forcing its shutdown and destroying its entire fuel supply. Ukraine also intercepted a missile targeting the Kyiv Reservoir, which if successful could have caused severe flooding in the capital city.   

Kyiv is divided by the Dnipro River, a 1,400-mile waterway that also bisects most of the country.  

“If that dam was damaged, Kyiv would be flooded, and there would be a humanitarian crisis … and it would cause a sort of cascade effect on other locks and dams along the Dnipro,” said a representative for the Ukrainian Volunteer Journalists Initiative (UVJI), a collective of local volunteers who maintain a daily, fact-checked record of casualties and damage.  

Russia has also bombarded the Shebel oil refinery just outside of Kyiv, causing a fire that UVJI estimated caused billions of dollars in environmental damages. The Shebel refinery, one of just two oil refineries nationwide, was the country’s second-biggest diesel and gasoline producer until officials shut it down Saturday.  

“It will burn for a long time. The environmental damage will be enormous,” Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, said Sunday.  

Ukrainian officials also reported over the weekend that Russian forces blew up a natural gas pipeline in Kharkiv, the nation’s second-biggest city, but the Gas Transmission System Operator of Ukraine said no disruption to service has been detected.  

In general, the environmental threat from the invasion is “enormous,” said another UVJI representative, because “we have a lot of such strategic objects. We are a big industrial country, and there are a lot of these … risk zones.”  

Another risk factor is Ukraine’s 15 nuclear power plants, the single biggest fleet of any nation. The same intercepted strike that targeted the reservoir could also have potentially damaged one of those sites, according to a UVJI representative.    

 As of Tuesday morning, Ukrainian regulators reported all the nation’s plants were functioning normally, but Petro Kotin, CEO of state operator Energoatom, on Tuesday called for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to impose a protective zone of about 18 miles around the units.  

“I continue to follow developments in Ukraine very closely and with grave concern, especially the conflict’s potential impact on the safety and security of the country’s nuclear facilities. It is extremely important that the nuclear power plants are not put at risk in any way,” IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said Tuesday. “An accident involving the nuclear facilities in Ukraine could have severe consequences for public health and the environment.” 

UVJI representatives confirmed to The Hill that a Russian missile struck a Kyiv nuclear waste disposal facility over the weekend, as initially reported by Ukrainian officials.  

While the government said the damage to the facility was not yet known, UVJI representatives said the damage had not created a risk of a nuclear waste spill. The strike, they said, damaged monitoring equipment at the facility, which has since been repaired and is reading slightly above-average gamma activity.  

More worrisome, they said, was the capture of the Chernobyl station, the site of the worst nuclear disaster in history in 1986. Russian forces have taken staff hostage and forced them to continue working, according to an environmental attorney with the UVJI. The workers have been generally treated well but have not been able to rotate shifts, she said, meaning “they are basically working sleepless there.”  

“And Ukraine has no control over Chernobyl power station, [and] therefore cannot guarantee that everything works properly there,” she added.  

Further complicating things, she said, Russian media has exaggerated or misrepresented the extent to which Russia has captured energy infrastructure in hopes of stoking panic and damaging Ukrainian morale. As recently as Monday, Russian media reported the capture of another nuclear power station, she said, but Ukrainian officials have since confirmed the station remains under Ukrainian control.  

“However, Russian forces are constantly trying to capture Ukrainian energy, nuclear, thermal and other power plants, because these are strategic and these are very important,” she added.  

A UVJI representative said Russian forces view Ukraine’s and Europe’s environment as a strategic target in the invasion. “They hold the environment hostage,” he said. “If they succeed, the byproduct to the environment especially could be immense.”  

“What we believe is not considered enough is the aftereffects” of attacks on energy and environmental infrastructure, said another representative.  

For example, if the attack on the Kyiv Dam alone had been successful, it would not only have displaced or drowned people in the area, it would also have caused major disruptions to the environment along the river that would resonate for years to come.   

“The flood of water would basically not only ruin the left bank of [Kyiv], it would also go way down to the south and destroy a lot of nuclear power stations and basically a lot of infrastructure and cities … around there,” he added.

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