AAs Russia steps up its threats to besieged nuclear power plants in Ukraine, the Biden administration has asked Congress to set aside $35 million to prepare for a possible nuclear incident in Europe.
Money would allow National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) “to prepare for and respond to potential nuclear and radiological incidents in Ukraine,” according to summary of the legislation released late Monday. The little-known Department of Energy agency that oversees America’s nuclear stockpile is tasked with responding to any nuclear incident around the world.
If the new funds are approved, the NNSA would provide radiation sensors, equipment and supplies for Ukraine’s National Guard, protective capabilities for Ukraine’s four nuclear facilities, anti-nuclear smuggling equipment for Ukraine’s State Border Guard and, in a worst-case scenario, consolidation of radiological materials, says NNSA spokesman Craig Branson.
First among those of the White House concerns is the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant in southeastern Ukraine, which Russian forces have occupied since March. The facility was shelled and suffered extensive damage over the course of the seven-month war, including power outages. The precarious situation has drawn the attention of the US and international partners, who are seeking to end all fighting in the area.
“We’re working with the International Atomic Energy Agency and with Ukrainian energy regulators to try to make sure there’s no threat of a meltdown or anything else from the plant,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said he said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “We’ll continue to do that, but it’s something we all have to keep a close eye on.”
The requested $35 million is a small part of a short-term government funding bill designed to avoid a federal shutdown less than six weeks before the Nov. 8 midterm elections. The bill, which seeks to extend government funding through December 16, includes $12.3 billion in military and economic aid to Ukraine.
The conflict in Ukraine has revived Cold War-era nuclear fears in the US about the potentially catastrophic consequences of an explosion and radioactive fallout. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the risk of the US or Russia launching a surprise, city-destroying nuclear attack was virtually eliminated.
To Russian President Vladimir Putin repeated nuclear threats recent months have awakened the younger generation of Americans and Europeans to the existential fear of thermonuclear war hanging over their heads. The use of nuclear weapons in modern conflict, once unthinkable, now seems possible, though still unlikely.
“This tells me that the U.S. government is deeply concerned about Russian military attacks on nuclear power plants, as well as the potential first use of nuclear weapons,” said Andy Weber, former assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs at the obama administration. “Ukraine must prepare to detect radiation leaks and save lives if they occur.”
Although shootings and attacks have erupted in Zaporozhye, the site has yet to experience a deadly radioactive leak, let alone a meltdown. But nuclear power plants are not designed to be in active war zones. A misplaced artillery shell or free-falling bomb in Zaporozhye or any of Ukraine’s three other nuclear power facilities could create a humanitarian catastrophe that would spread far beyond Ukraine’s borders.
Amid Putin’s threats to “use all available means to protect Russia,” US intelligence is closely monitoring Russia’s strategic arsenal for any signs of movement. On Tuesday, Defense Department spokesman Brigadier General Pat Ryder said the U.S. had yet to see anything “that would cause us to adjust our own nuclear posture.”
Still, the danger cannot be ignored and the uncertainty is felt around the world. Alex Wellerstein, a nuclear weapons historian and assistant professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, says his NUKEMAP website has more visitors this year than since its inception in 2012. The simulator allows users to visualize the scale and impact of a nuclear explosion anywhere on Earth, providing detailed models based on declassified information about various types of nuclear strikes. Visitors can choose the location of the target, the weapon and the type of detonation – air or ground. Traffic spiked after the February 24 invasion of Russia and remained strong throughout the year, even hitting nearly 400,000 page views on some days. “NUKEMAP got so much traffic that it basically denied half the people trying to use it access for a while, but I fixed it,” says Wellerstein.
During the Cold War, public awareness of the consequences of a nuclear attack was widespread. Books, advertisements and films from the era recount what a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union might mean for ordinary Americans. The federal government drafted 1951 animated film which features Burt the Turtle teaching American children to “duck and cover” in the event of a nuclear attack.
Towards the end of the Cold War, the US abandoned such efforts after realizing that a thermonuclear war would result in millions of casualties and a bleak outlook for any survivors. But in July, the New York City Department of Emergency Management issued a A 90-second public service announcement which was intended to instruct New Yorkers on what to do after a nuclear detonation.
The video opens with deserted scenes of the city, sirens blaring in the distance, as a woman dressed in black comes into view. “So there was a nuclear attack,” she says. “Don’t ask me how or why, just know that the big one has struck. OK, what do we do?”
According to the city, there are three steps to take: get inside, stay inside and monitor the media and government for updates. (The video does not explain how electronic and digital communications would survive a hydrogen bomb.) New York City Mayor Eric Adams said at a July 12 press conference that the public service announcement was “a very proactive step.”
It got people’s attention. The video has nearly 900,000 views on YouTube, making it a hit compared to other department videos. “I’m a big believer in: better safe than sorry,” Adams said. “The necessary steps were indeed taken after what happened in Ukraine to ensure preparedness.”
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