Many people don’t understand the Chernobyl disaster to begin with. Spreading unverified information about another nuclear disaster during a war is unwise and possibly even dangerous to Ukrainians, experts say.
When Russian forces captured the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the early stages of their invasion of Ukraine this week, the internet was rife with speculation about impending doom. Actual nuclear experts, however, are much more concerned with the damage this misinformation can do than the dangers posed by the shuttered nuclear power plant.
“When people feel anxious, we want to amplify information or things that appear to be giving us more information,” said Katie Mummah, a nuclear engineer and doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who dedicates much of her time to educating the public about nuclear science.
This is especially true in the case of Chernobyl, Mummah added, because so many people are familiar with the 1986 accident at the facility that still tops the list of the world’s worst nuclear disasters. As a result, they feel a connection to the event and want to amplify what they hear about it even more.
Before the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) confirmed that there was no damage at Chernobyl from the Russian takeover, rumors spread on social media that radiation was leaking from the facility and that the invaders could use Chernobyl as a nuclear weapon, among other speculation.
Most reporting since the first day of the invasion has made it clear that the main reason Chernobyl was captured is that it is located on the most direct route to Kyiv from Belarus, and that the most dangerous thing to have happened at the site so far is the disturbance of radioactive dust in the soil. A more thorough news diet also makes clear that the risk of ecological disaster recurring at Chernobyl is likely only to be significant in the event of a deliberate Russian bombing.
Unfortunately, academic research shows that misinformation tends to spread much more rapidly than the information that corrects it, and many people will still believe the false information even after they have seen it corrected. It remains to be seen how many people still believe that another Chernobyl disaster may be imminent.
While news moves very quickly in a war and a certain level of false information will inevitably be circulated, the possibilities for such misinformation are even more plentiful when it concerns a topic such as Chernobyl that many people don’t fully understand to begin with. For instance, many people do not realize that there have been no active reactors at the site since 2000, or that a nuclear power plant cannot explode like a nuclear weapon.
“The conditions to create a nuclear weapon are actually relatively difficult. Those conditions do not exist in a nuclear power plant,” said Mummah. “There can be a steam explosion, which is what happened [in 1986] in Chernobyl. But even that is not a nuclear weapon.”
While this war continues, it is the active nuclear reactors in Ukraine that would be most likely to cause another nuclear accident should they be damaged, whether deliberately or not. There are currently 15 active reactors in the country, though they are all pressurized-water reactors. This design is safer than the flawed “RBMK” reactor design that was used at Chernobyl.
Even damage to nuclear waste storage sites is not necessarily a catastrophe, though it does pose a risk. While a waste facility in Kyiv was struck by a missile overnight on February 27, the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine currently believes there is no threat to human life. The Inspectorate also told the IAEA that there was no damage to the building or radiation released.
Given Russia’s significant stockpile of actual nuclear weapons and President Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric around the idea of using them in the case of a third-party military intervention, even genuine nuclear war may be more likely to occur than another Chernobyl accident. Joshua H. Pollack, editor of The Nonproliferation Review, wrote on Twitter that Putin is “invoking his nuclear arsenal as a shield for aggression in Ukraine.”
However, Pollack goes on, nuclear war is still quite unlikely as long as President Joe Biden remains firm that no US forces will fight in Ukraine. So, at this time, nuclear dangers of any type are “something of a sideshow in this conflict.”
Though misconceptions about the realities of nuclear science or what is actually happening at Chernobyl can be scary for those outside of Ukraine, rampant speculation also has the potential to further negatively affect Ukrainians as they suffer through a war. Rumors about another disaster at Chernobyl could lead not just to additional stress, but also to people preemptively taking potassium iodide to prevent radiation sickness. These pills are dangerous to ingest if there is no major radiological emergency, said Mummah.
Mummah encourages people encountering new information about Chernobyl and nuclear issues online to use the SIFT Method of evaluating information before sharing it with others. Each letter in “SIFT” is a step to determining the validity of unfamiliar claims.
First, stop before sharing; next, investigate the source; then, find better coverage if the source does not seem trustworthy; and finally, be sure to trace the information to its original context.
Organizations such as the IAEA, which is a reporting body to the United Nations, and the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine are good places to go to for verified nuclear information and updates about the safety of Ukraine’s nuclear plants.
Finally, said Mummah, it is important to remember that we are not all obligated to share everything that comes across our screens, even in times of crisis.
“It’s okay to log off or consume news without necessarily amplifying it online,” she said. “That doesn’t make you apathetic. Sometimes it’s even smart for all of us to choose not to insert ourselves into a conversation that we’re not the main protagonist of.”