Heightened security fears on Chernobyl disaster anniversary
On the 36th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine, the world is again concerned about the safety of nuclear power plants, amid the ongoing Russian invasion, which has seen shelling take place at Chernobyl, and other nuclear sites in the country.
The defunct Chernobyl nuclear plant, and the city of Slavutich – whose residents maintain the site, which needs constant monitoring to ensure radioactive material does not leak out – was occupied by Russian troops for over a month.
Bogdan Serdyuk, chairman of the union that represents plant workers, recalls the battle near the site, which marked the beginning of the Russian invasion, on 24 February.
“The station staff heard the roar of military equipment, and soon the site was surrounded by Russian tanks. The tracks threw up contaminated dust, which immediately increased the background radiation.
“The station has security units, specialized in counter-terrorist warfare, but they were no match for the Russian forces and, in any case, there are rules that prohibit combat operations on the territory of a nuclear power plant.”
The main problem, according to the staff, was that as a result of the shelling, power lines were damaged and both Slavutych and the plant itself, lost power.
“The plant has four units, including the one that was destroyed in the 1986 accident. All the nuclear fuel from the three units that were still functioning after the explosion was removed and placed in a nuclear waste repository”, explains Mr. Serdyuk.
“The fuel rods are stored in water that is circulated to keep them cool. The moment the power went off, everyone was worried about whether the water would begin to heat up. Experts believe that, if it is not circulated, the water could boil, and the spent fuel would begin to melt, with unpredictable consequences”.
Another cause for concern was the safety of the protective sarcophagus which contains the destroyed reactor of the fourth power unit, and the remains of nuclear waste. Damage to the sarcophagus could lead to radioactive dust escaping.
A concern for the whole world
Work at Chernobyl is carried out by some 2,700 people. Most live in Slavutych, a satellite city built immediately after the 1986 accident, around 50 kilometers away from the epicenter of the disaster.
Nuclear power plant workers with their families, as well as residents of the evacuated city of Pripyat, and the entire 30-kilometre zone around the station affected by radioactive contamination, were relocated there.
In peacetime, the plant employees in Slavutych commuted to work by train, which took about 45 minutes. However, when the railway lines were blown up, travel from Slavutych took eight hours, and staff now rotate, spending week-long shifts at the plant, which was not designed for people living on-site.
“Nuclear plants are designed to withstand an impact comparable in strength to an aircraft. But this is not the same as the shelling that took place at the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant”, warns Mr. Slavutych, in reference to another, still functioning, Ukrainian plant.
“The seizure of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, and the shelling of the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant raise the question of nuclear safety not only for Ukraine. Nuclear power plants should not become targets for the military, because even partial destruction can lead to catastrophic consequences for the whole world”.
‘We cannot allow such a tragedy to happen again’
“We have a tradition in Slavutych. Every year, from April 25 to 26, at the same minutes when the Chernobyl accident occurred, we gather near for the Chernobyl victims”, says Vladimir Udovichenko, the town’s mayor.
“We silently honour the memory of those who protected Ukraine and the whole world from further terrible consequences of the accident. And today we will not break this tradition. We cannot allow such a tragedy to happen again.
“What happened at Chernobyl [following the Russian invasion] and continues now in Enerhodar [the town where the Zaporizhzhya plant is located] is unacceptable. This needs to be stopped and we now need to think about what can be done to strengthen the safety of nuclear power plants. We expect IAEA experts to work with us”.
IAEA team arrives in Ukraine
A team of IAEA staff, led by Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi, is visiting Chernobyl, to deliver equipment and conduct radiological and other assessments at the facility. Personal protective equipment will also be delivered.
In addition, IAEA specialists will repair the remote data control systems installed at the facility, which the occupying forcers disabled, resulting in IAEA staff at the Agency’s headquarters in Vienna being unable to receive online data from Chernobyl.
Since the beginning of the war, the IAEA has expressed serious concern about the safety and security of Ukraine’s nuclear facilities. According to Mr. Grossi, the physical integrity of nuclear power plants, the ability of personnel to work without excessive pressure, and access to external power sources should be ensured.
These rules have been seriously violated over the past two months. In March, communication with the Chernobyl nuclear power plant was lost. The station was left without external power supply, and for several days it was necessary to use emergency diesel generators.
“The IAEA’s presence in Chernobyl will be of paramount importance to our support activities for Ukraine, as it seeks to restore regulatory control over the nuclear power plant and ensure its safe and secure operation”, said Mr. Grossi. “This will be followed by additional IAEA missions to this, and other nuclear facilities in Ukraine”.
Russia will deploy nuclear weapons in Belarus – EU and NATO went ballistic
Baroness Goldie, who is an experienced Scottish politician and life peer who served as Leader of the Scottish Conservative Party from 2005 to 2011 and as the UK’s Minister of State for Defence since 2019, said to the Parliament: “Alongside our granting of a squadron of Challenger 2 main battle tanks to Ukraine, we will be providing ammunition including armour piercing rounds which contain depleted uranium. Such rounds are highly effective in defeating modern tanks and armoured vehicles.”
The Anglo-Saxon clique’s core objective is a calculated escalation of the proxy war that is certain to draw forth a robust reaction from Moscow, as predictable as night follows day, writes M.K. Bhadrakumar, Indian Ambassador and prominent international observer.
Indeed, that is precisely what happened when Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia will deploy its tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus. Putin linked this to a request from Belarus in reaction to Baroness Goldie’s statement in London a week ago.
More importantly, Putin also drew the analogy of the US placing its nuclear weapons on the territories of the allied NATO countries for decades.
The EU and NATO went ballistic after Putin’s disclosure. EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell said Moscow’s decision was “an irresponsible escalation and threat to European security.” He promised to impose “further sanctions” against Belarus!
A NATO spokeswoman called Moscow’s decision “dangerous and irresponsible.” Interestingly, though, the Biden administration neatly side-stepped the issue, focusing instead that the US has not seen any signs that Russia has moved nuclear weapons to Belarus or anywhere else!
What is the game plan? First, the Anglo-Saxon clique would hope that the issue will create further disquiet and insecurity in Europe vis-a-vis Russia and would rally European countries behind the Biden administration at a time when fault lines were appearing within the transatlantic alliance over a protracted war in Ukraine that might be catastrophic for European economies.
However, Washington is hard-pressed to respond to Putin’s remark that Russia is only doing something that the US has been doing for decades.
The crux of the matter is, as with the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, the Russian decision on tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus is retaliatory, drawing attention to the US missiles stationed close to its borders. (An estimated 100 nuclear weapons are stored in vaults in five European countries — Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands and Turkey.)
Worse still, the US practices a controversial arrangement known as “nuclear sharing”, under which it installs nuclear equipment on fighter jets of select non-nuclear NATO countries and train their pilots to carry out nuclear strike with US nuclear bombs. This is happening when the US, being a party to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), has promised not to hand over nuclear weapons to other countries, and the non-nuclear countries in the NATO’s sharing arrangement have themselves promised not to receive nuclear weapons from the nuclear weapon states!
The NATO declared last year that seven NATO countries contributed dual-capable aircraft to the nuclear sharing mission. These countries are believed to be the US, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Turkey and Greece. And all are signatories to the NPT!
There is no question that depleted uranium munitions are radioactive and toxic and their heavy use in the Yugoslavia and Iraq wars has been linked to birth defects and cancers. It has been tied to “the highest rate of genetic damage in any population ever studied” in Fallujah, the city subjected to two brutal US sieges during the invasion of Iraq.
Britain appears to be creating conditions in Europe to justify the basing of nuclear-armed US bombers at Lakenheath in Suffolk, which were removed in 1991 in line with the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty, stresses M.K. Bhadrakumar.
Free will trumps determinism in Gulf politics
China’s mediation to normalise Saudi-Iranian diplomatic ties has been widely welcomed internationally, especially in the West Asian region. A clutch of unhappy states that do not want to see China stealing a march on any front, even if it advances the cause of world peace, mutely watched, notes M.K. Bhadrakumar, Indian Ambassador and prominent international observer.
The US led this pack of dead souls. But the US is also on the horns of a dilemma. Can it afford to be a spoiler?
Saudi Arabia is not only the fountainhead of petrodollar recycling — and, therefore, a pillar of the western banking system — but also America’s number one market for arms exports. Europe is facing energy crisis and the stability of the oil market is an overriding concern.
Saudi Arabia has shown remarkable maturity to maintain that its “Look East” policy and the strategic partnership with China do not mean it is dumping the Americans. Saudis are treading softly.
Yet, the fact remains that the Saudi-Iranian deal drives a knife into the heart of the US’ West Asian strategy. The deal leaves the US and Israel badly isolated. The Jewish lobby may show its unhappiness during President Biden’s bid for another term. China has stolen a march on the US with far-reaching consequences, which signifies a foreign policy disaster for Biden.
Washington has not spoken the last word and may be plotting to push back the peace process from becoming mainstream politics of the West Asian region. The American commentators are visualising that the Saudi-Iranian normalisation will be a long haul and the odds are heavily stacked against it.
The Saudi official said China’s role makes it more likely that the terms of the deal will hold. “It (China) is a major stakeholder in the security and stability of the Gulf,” he noted. The official also revealed that the talks in Beijing involved “five very extensive” sessions on thorny issues. The most difficult topics were related to Yemen, the media, and China’s role, the official said.
Meanwhile, there are positive tidings in the air too — the likelihood of a foreign minister level meeting between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the near future and, more importantly, the reported letter of invitation from King Salman of Saudi Arabia to Iranian President Ebrahim Raeisi to visit Riyadh.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian remarked on Sunday with reference to the Yemeni crisis that “We [Iran] are working with Saudi Arabia on ensuring the stability of the region. We will not accept any threat against us from neighbouring countries.”
To be sure, the regional environment is improving. Signs of an overall easing of tensions have appeared. For the first visit of its kind in over a decade, the Turkish Foreign Minister was in Cairo and the Egyptian FM has been to Turkey and Syria.
Last week, on return from Beijing, Admiral Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council headed for the UAE where President Sheikh Mohammed received him.
Soon after that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad arrived in the UAE on an official visit. “Syria has been absent from its brothers for too long, and the time has come for it to return to them and to its Arab surroundings,” Sheikh Mohamed told Assad during their historic meeting at the presidential palace.
Evidently, the regional states are tapping the “feel-good” generated by the Saudi-Iranian understanding. Contrary to the western propaganda of an estrangement lately between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Sheikh Mohammed is identifying closely with the positive trends in the regional environment.
This is where China’s overarching role fostering dialogue and amity becomes decisive. The regional countries regard China as a benign interlocutor and the concerted attempts by the US and its junior partners to run down China make no impact on the regional states.
Fundamentally, both Saudi Arabia and Iran have compulsions to shift the locus of their national strategies to development and economic growth. This has received scant attention. The Western media has deliberately ignored this and instead demonised the Saudi Crown Prince and created a doomsday scenario for Iran’s Islamic regime.
That said, the known unknown is the tension building up over Iran’s nuclear programme… A Russian-Chinese coordinated effort is needed to forestall the US from raking up the nuclear issue in tandem with Israel and ratchet up tensions, including military tensions, in such a way that a pretext becomes available to destabilise the region and marginalise the Saudi-Iran agreement as the leitmotif of regional politics.
On balance, the regional states are acting on free will, increasingly and eschewing their determinism that was wedded to decisions and actions that were thought to be causally inevitable.
The realisation has dawned now that it is within the capacity of sovereign states to make decisions or perform actions independently of any prior event or state of the universe, stresses M.K. Bhadrakumar.
There is optimism that Syria stands to gain out of Saudi-Iranian rapprochement
The circumstances surrounding the flare-up in Syria between the US occupation forces and pro-Iranian militia groups remain murky. President Biden claims that the US is reacting, but there are signs that it is likely being proactive to create new facts on the ground, notes M.K. Bhadrakumar, Indian Ambassador and prominent international observer.
The US Central Command claims that following a drone attack on March 23 afternoon on an American base near Hasakah, at the direction of President Biden, retaliatory air strikes were undertaken later that night against “facilities used by groups affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.”
However, this version has been disputed by the spokesman of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council who accused Washington of “creating artificial crises and lying.” The Iranian official has alleged that “Over the past two days, American helicopters have carried out several sorties with the aim of increasing instability in Syria and transferred Daesh (Islamic State) terrorists in the territory of this country.”
He said Washington must be held accountable for such activities. The official warned that Tehran will give a prompt response to any US attack on whatever false pretext against Iranian bases that exist on Syrian soil at the request of Damascus for fighting terrorism.
Is the US deliberately ratcheting up tensions in Syria even as the China-brokered Saudi-Iranian rapprochement is radically changing the security scenario in the West Asian region in a positive direction?
There is optimism that Syria stands to gain out of Saudi-Iranian rapprochement. Already, the Saudi Foreign Ministry revealed that talks are going on with Syria for resuming consular services between the two countries, which will pave the way for the resumption of diplomatic relations and in turn make it possible to reinstate Syria’s membership of the Arab League.
Saudi Arabia has established an air bridge with Syria to send reef supplies for those affected by the devastating earthquake in February.
The backdrop is that the normalisation of relations between Syria and its estranged Arab neighbours has accelerated. It must be particularly galling for Washington that these regional states used to be active participants in the US-led regime change project to overthrow the government of President Bashar al-Assad. The Saudi-Iranian rapprochement badly isolates the US and Israel.
From such a perspective, it stands to reason that the US is once again stirring up the Syrian cauldron. Lately, Russian aircraft have been reported as frequently flying over the US’s military base At Tanf on the Syrian-Iraqi border where training camps for militant groups are known to exist.
Israel too is a stakeholder in keeping Syria unstable and weak. In the Israeli narrative, Iran-backed militia groups are increasing their capability in Syria in the last two years and continued US occupation of Syria is vital for balancing these groups. Israel is paranoid that a strong government in Damascus will inevitably start challenging its illegal occupation of Golan Heights.
A key factor in this matrix is the nascent process of Russian mediation between Turkiye and Syria. With an eye on the forthcoming presidential and parliamentary election in Turkiye in May, President Recep Erdogan is keen to achieve some visible progress in improving the ties with Syria.
Erdogan senses that the Turkish public opinion strongly favours normalisation with Syria. Polls in December showed that 59 percent of Turks would like an early repatriation of Syrian refugees who are a burden on Turkish economy, which has an inflation rate of 90 percent.
Significantly, Erdogan telephoned Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday and the Kremlin readout mentioned that amongst “topics concerning Russian-Turkish partnership in various fields,” during the conversation, “the Syrian issue was touched upon, and the importance of continuing the normalisation of Turkish-Syrian relations was underlined. In this regard the President of Türkiye highlighted the constructive mediatory role Russia has played in this process.”
It is entirely conceivable that Erdogan has sought Putin’s help and intervention to reach a modus vivendi with Assad quickly. Of course, this is a spectacular success story for Russian diplomacy — and for Putin personally — that the Kremlin is called upon to broker the Turkish-Syrian normalisation.
The China-brokered Saudi-Iranian normalisation hit Washington where it hurts. But if Putin now brokers peace between two other rival West Asian states, Biden will be exposed as hopelessly incompetent.
And, if Turkiye ends its military presence in Syria, the limelight will fall on the US’ illegal occupation of one-third of Syrian territory and the massive smuggling of oil and other resources from Syria in American military convoys.
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