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Fukushima could provide insight into a potential nuclear disaster in Ukraine

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A delegation of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency is on its way to the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in southern Ukraine today. It is the largest nuclear power plant in all of Europe. And it's right on the front line, right in the middle of fighting and shelling right now. Some experts fear the plant could melt down in a way similar to what happened in Fukushima, Japan, over a decade ago. But what would a nuclear crisis like Fukushima look like in a war zone? Well, NPR's Kat Lonsdorf has spent time in both Fukushima and Ukraine and joins us now to discuss the risks. Hi Kat.

KAT LONSDORF, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: Hey. OK, so can we just start in Fukushima because you were there right before the pandemic started, touring villages that are still mostly empty 10 years out or more than 10 years out. What is it like there right now?

LONSDORF: Yeah, so one thing is that there are all of these bags of radioactive topsoil everywhere, just piles and piles of them. Cleanup crews basically have to scrape away all the topsoil because that's where the radioactive material settles. You know, recovery generally in that area has been really, really hard, really expensive. It was a big rice farming area, but that's mostly gone around the plant. So there's not really an economy anymore.

CHANG: And why do experts keep talking about Fukushima as a comparison to the Zaporizhzhia plant, as opposed to, say, like what happened at Chernobyl?

LONSDORF: Yeah, so a lot of people think of Chernobyl when they think of nuclear disaster, which is also in Ukraine. But that disaster happened because of design flaws and human errors. Fukushima is a better comparison. It wasn't a war zone, but it was in a major disaster zone after a massive tsunami hit it after an earthquake, and workers had a lot of trouble getting into the plant. That's true at Zaporizhzhia. Fukushima lost power and the backup generators were also out, that's what caused the meltdowns. Zaporizhzhia lost power briefly last week, and now, fortunately, its generators switched on. And I should say, something that's nice in all of this is that some of the safety systems that are new Zaporizhzhia came in response to what happened at Fukushima. I spoke with Olena Pareniuk. She's a senior researcher in the Institute for Safety Problems of Nuclear Power Plants at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. And she's also spent a bunch of time in Fukushima studying the disaster there. Here's what she told me, with a little bit of dark humor.

OLENA PARENIUK: We keep laughing that, right now, all of the reactors in Ukraine, they're tsunami proof. But it isn't possible to predict the missile.

LONSDORF: There's just no way they could have put enough safeguards in for war.

CHANG: Right. Well, if a meltdown does occur at Zaporizhzhia, it might look like something akin to Fukushima. But what could be different in this case?

LONSDORF: Containing it would be a huge problem. In Fukushima, it took weeks with an international effort to stabilize the plant, and that's just not possible in this war right now. Zaporizhzhia is, again, right on the front line, technically in Russian control. So it's not clear, like, how experts or emergency staff could get there to help, even if they wanted to. Olena Pareniuk and I were playing out that terrible scenario, and she was like, look, I'm a professional, I know the risks of radiation, but would I be willing to take the risks of entering the front line in an area controlled by Russia? And she wasn't so sure.

PARENIUK: Of course, as a professional, I must. But then my husband is serving in the army, so I'm the only caregiver to my son. So I would like to live a little bit more...

CHANG: Dire choices.

LONSDORF: Yeah.

CHANG: Well, if a nuclear disaster does happen, can you just give us an idea of what the long-term consequences could be, given what we've seen in Fukushima?

LONSDORF: Well, there has been an uptick in cancer rates in the area in Fukushima, but it's really, really hard to prove whether cancer comes directly from an accident like this or not. But the real threat here might be economic. Like Fukushima, Zaporizhzhia is right in the middle of some of Ukraine's most fertile land. So imagine that soil being contaminated. We've been hearing a lot about these Ukrainian grain shipments that the rest of the world is depending on. This is the land where a lot of that grain comes from. But I should say that all of it is theoretical. The IAEA is trying to inspect the plant right now - this week - and it's really in everyone's best interest to make sure something like this does not happen.

CHANG: That is NPR's Kat Lonsdorf. Thank you, Kat.

LONSDORF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.