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Misleading images of Chernobyl, Zaporizhzhia plants undercut real reasons for concern

Luiz Romero
By Luiz Romero March 4, 2022

If Your Time is short

• Early in the invasion, Russian forces took control of Chernobyl, the nuclear power plant in Ukraine where a reactor exploded in 1986 in the worst nuclear disaster in history. Now, they have seized Zaporizhzhia, an active nuclear power plant.

• Misleading images used to illustrate Facebook posts about the takeovers show explosions, mushroom clouds, mortars, and dead soldiers. Although the situation is disturbing, the pictures are misleading.

• Photos show events that happened elsewhere in Ukraine, before the war started, or elsewhere in the world. One image used to illustrate a Facebook post was taken from the HBO series “Chernobyl.”

On the first day of the Russian invasion into Ukraine, Russian forces took control of Chernobyl, the power station in Ukraine where a reactor exploded in 1986 in the worst nuclear disaster in history.

Experts were concerned, but said that the true danger came not from the decommissioned plant, but from the four nuclear power plants that are currently operating in Ukraine.

Eight days later, Russian forces took control of Zaporizhzhia, one of those plants with working reactors. Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russia of "nuclear terror."

The takeovers of Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia offer ample reason for worry. But miscaptioned and fabricated images on Facebook make them sound catastrophic, with photos of explosions, mushroom clouds, mortars and dead soldiers that haven’t happened at either site.

Some show events that happened elsewhere in Ukraine. An image of burning wagons and antennas, for example, was used to illustrate an article about Chernobyl, which is located in the north of the country, but the photo actually depicts an air base in Mariupol, which is in the south.

Likewise, the helicopters shown on a post about the takeover of Chernobyl are flying over Kyiv, not the plant. Firefighters shown in an image on Facebook trying to control a fire at Zaporizhzhia are actually working in Kyiv. And the explosion shown on a post about Chernobyl and on a post about Zaporizhzhia also happened in the capital and not at the plants.

Some images show events that happened before the war started. Conservative U.S. website Breitbart used outdated images from a military exercise held on Feb. 4 for an article published on Feb. 24. The headline near the photo mentions "Russian forces" but the image actually shows Ukrainian soldiers.

Other Facebook posts with pictures of the same exercise, describing a "fierce battle" at Chernobyl, give the mistaken impression that the fighting involved truckloads of soldiers, included the firing of mortars, and resulted in casualties.

Some images show events that did not even take place in Ukraine — or are completely fictional. A picture of a massive fire cloud that illustrates a post about "a fire at Zaporizhzhia" actually shows an accident at a factory in Chile. And a picture of a man inspecting Chernobyl with binoculars actually comes from the HBO miniseries "Chernobyl."

Here’s what has really happened so far with the takeovers.

Risks at Chernobyl

On Feb. 24, Russian soldiers took control of the Chernobyl site after a battle with Ukrainian national guards, the Associated Press reported.

Since then, the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate, the nuclear safety agency of Ukraine, has been sharing updates with the International Atomic Energy Agency, an international organization based in Vienna that reports to the United Nations.

On Feb. 24, the IAEA reported the Ukrainian body as saying that "there had been no casualties nor destruction" at Chernobyl during the takeover by Russia, contradicting Zelensky’s claim that Ukrainian soldiers died to protect Chernobyl.

Days later, the agencies said that "radiation levels around the facility were being monitored and did not exceed usual levels" and that "no operation involving nuclear material had been conducted" since the takeover.

There is still the risk of a disaster. "As the world saw in 1986, a severe accident at a nuclear plant in Ukraine does have the potential to disperse radioactive contamination over much of Europe," says Edwin Lyman, an expert in nuclear power safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Spent nuclear fuel is currently stored in water pools at Chernobyl, Lyman said, and "if cooling of those pools is disrupted — or if there is damage to a pool that causes the water to drain — the spent fuel could heat up," reaching a dangerous temperature that could result in radiation release. He said that there is a very low risk that such a cooling disruption would go unnoticed and cause serious damage, however.

There is also the risk of human error. The IAEA said that the same Ukrainian workers who had been on duty at Chernobyl when the Russians took over were still on duty more than a week later. The agency is concerned about their wellbeing and their ability to do their jobs.

"Reactors require trained operators and skilled maintenance personnel," and workers typically do five shifts per week, Lyman said. "If personnel have to work overtime without sufficient rest in between shifts, fatigue will set in."

The shelling at Zaporizhzhia

The fighting near active nuclear power plants is the bigger threat, according to James​ Acton, an expert in nuclear policy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He wrote on Feb. 24 that while Chernobyl is isolated, which would "mitigate the consequences" of an accident, Ukraine’s other plants are not. 

"Much of the fuel in these other reactors is substantially more radioactive than the fuel at Chernobyl," he wrote.

According to Lyman, active plants always carry the risk of nuclear accidents. The main one in Ukraine is if one of those plants is hit in a strike or in battle. "A fire or explosion at a nuclear plant could disrupt electrical systems or coolant piping, leading to a heatup of the highly radioactive fuel in the reactor," he says. "If cooling is not restored in time, the fuel could melt," like what happened in the disaster at Fukushima.

That helps explain why the fighting near Zaporizhzhia in recent days and the news of its takeover — which involved firing against the plant and a fire that was later extinguished — were met with such alarm.

Zelensky said an explosion there would be "the end for everyone." The United States activated its nuclear incident response team, and the IAEA activated its Incident and Emergency Center. Rafael Grossi, the head of the IAEA said he was "extremely concerned" by the shelling of the nuclear building, which "violates the fundamental principle that the physical integrity of nuclear facilities must be maintained and kept safe" at all times.

Ukrainian nuclear safety inspectors have not been able to fully access the site, but the IAEA said that the safety systems of the nuclear reactors had not been affected, that radiation monitoring was fully functional, and that radioactive material had not been released.

"Because the fire was in an auxiliary building, the risk was not as serious as I initially feared," Acton of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told PolitiFact. "However, the combination of nuclear power plants and wars is a very dangerous one."

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Our Sources

The Associated Press, "Chernobyl no-go zone targeted as Russia invades Ukraine," Feb. 24, 2022

Nuclear Energy Institute, "Comparing Fukushima and Chernobyl," October 2019

The Associated Press, "Russians take Ukraine nuclear plant; no radiation after fire," March 4, 2022

A statement on Twitter by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Feb. 24, 2022

Updates 1, 4, 5, 7, and 11 by the International Atomic Energy Agency, published between Feb. 24 and March 4, 2022

A statement on Twitter by United States energy secretary Jennifer Granholm, March 4, 2022

James Acton, "The most immediate nuclear danger in Ukraine isn’t Chernobyl," Feb. 24, 2022

Email exchange with James​ Acton, an expert in nuclear policy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Feb. 28 and March 4, 2022

Email interview with Edwin Lyman, an expert in nuclear power safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists. March 1, 2022

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