As Russia ups its threats to Ukraine’s beleaguered nuclear power plants, the Biden Administration has asked Congress to set aside $35 million to prepare for a possible nuclear incident in Europe.
The money would allow the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) “to prepare for and respond to potential nuclear and radiological incidents in Ukraine,” according to a summary of the legislation released late Monday. The little-known Department of Energy agency, which oversees America’s nuclear stockpile, is tasked with responding to any nuclear incident around the globe.
If the new funds are approved, the NNSA would provide radiation sensors, equipment and supplies for the Ukraine’s National Guard, protective capabilities for Ukraine’s four nuclear facilities, counter-nuclear smuggling equipment for Ukraine’s State Border Guard and, in a worst case, consolidation of radiological materials, says NNSA spokesman Craig Branson.
Foremost among the White House’s concerns is the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant in southeastern Ukraine, which Russian forces have occupied since March. The facility has been shelled and has sustained major damage over the course of the seven-month war, including getting cut off from its power supply. The precarious situation has drawn the attention of the U.S. and international partners who seek to halt all fighting in the area.
“We’ve been working with the International Atomic Energy Agency and with Ukrainian energy regulators to try to make sure that there is no threat posed by a meltdown or something else from the plant,” White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “We will continue to do that, but it’s something we all have to keep a close eye on.”
The requested $35 million is a fraction of a short-term government funding bill, which is designed to avoid a federal shutdown less than six weeks before the Nov. 8 midterm elections. The bill, which aims to extend government funding through Dec. 16, includes $12.3 billion in military and economic assistance to Ukraine.
The conflict in Ukraine has revived Cold War nuclear fears in the U.S. about the potentially catastrophic aftermath of a blast and radioactive fallout. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the risk that the U.S. or Russia would launch a surprise, city-destroying nuclear attack was practically eliminated.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s repeated nuclear threats in recent months have awakened a younger generation of Americans and Europeans to the existential fear of thermonuclear war hanging above their heads. The use of nuclear weapons in a modern conflict, once unthinkable, now appears possible, if still unlikely.
“It tells me that the government of the U.S. is deeply concerned about Russian military attacks on nuclear power plants as well as the potential first-use of nuclear weapons,” says Andy Weber, former assistant secretary of Defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs in the Obama Administration. “Ukraine should be preparing to detect radiation leaks and to save lives if they occur.”
Although firefights and attacks have broken out at Zaporizhzhya, 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 at Zaporizhzhya, or any of Ukraine’s three other nuclear power facilities, could create a humanitarian disaster that could spread well beyond Ukraine’s borders.
Amid Putin’s threats to “use all available means to protect Russia,” U.S. intelligence has kept a close eye on Russia’s strategic arsenal for any signs of movement. On Tuesday, Defense Department spokesman Brigadier General Pat Ryder said the U.S. has not yet seen anything “that would cause us to adjust our own nuclear posture.”
Still the danger cannot be disregarded, and the uncertainty is being felt across the globe. Alex Wellerstein, a nuclear weapons historian and assistant professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, says his website NUKEMAP has experienced more visitors this year than since he created it in 2012. The simulator allows users to visualize the scale and impact of a nuclear blast anywhere on Earth, providing detailed models based on declassified information on various types of nuclear strikes. Visitors can pick the target location, the weapon and type of detonation—air or on the ground. Traffic spiked after Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion and has remained strong all year, even notching nearly 400,000 page views some days. “NUKEMAP received so much traffic that it essentially denied half of the people trying to use it access for a while, but I fixed it,” Wellerstein says.
During the Cold War, public awareness of the consequences of nuclear attack was widespread. Books, advertisements and films of the era narrated what a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union might mean for average Americans. The federal government produced an animated film in 1951 that featured Bert the Turtle who taught American children to “duck and cover” in case of atomic attack.
Near the end of the Cold War, the U.S. discontinued such efforts after realizing that a thermonuclear war would result in millions of casualties and grim prospects for any survivors. But in July, New York City’s Department of Emergency Management issued a 90-second public service announcement that aimed to instruct New Yorkers on what they should do after a nuclear detonation.
The video opens with desolate scenes of the city, sirens blaring in the distance, as a woman dressed in black walks into view. “So there’s been a nuclear attack,” she says. “Don’t ask me how or why, just know that the big one has hit. OK, so, what do we do?”
According to the city, there are three steps to take: get inside, stay inside and stay tuned into media and government for updates. (The video does not explain how electronic and digital communications will have managed to survive a hydrogen bomb.) New York Mayor Eric Adams said during a July 12 press conference that the public service announcement was a “very proactive step.”
It did get people’s attention. The video has nearly 900,000 views on YouTube, which makes it a blockbuster compared to the department’s other videos. “I’m a big believer in: better safe than sorry,” Adams said. “It was really taking necessary steps after what happened in Ukraine, to give preparedness.”
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