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How Violence in Ukraine Could Lead to Nuclear Disaster

Posted on Mar 21, 2015

By Stanley Heller

    An aging, protective sarcophagus encloses Chernobyl’s nuclear reactor, which failed catastrophically in 1986. (Pricey / CC BY-ND 2.0)

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Do you know about the maps that traumatized the baby-boom generation? In the ’50s and ’60s, the civil defense authorities in the United States made maps showing the effect of a nuclear bomb blast on a city. In the illustrations, there would be a central core representing the incineration zone and then ever-widening circles representing the total destruction of buildings, the partial destruction of them, the fireball radius, the radiation radius and so on. The point was to encourage you to build nuclear shelters in your basement.

In the Internet Age, you can go one better. Alex Wellerstein, assistant professor of science and technology studies at the Stevens Institute of Technology, has developed an interactive Web page called Nukemap. It’s a tool that allows you to simulate the detonation of 31 different nuclear bombs over a Google Map of New York, Tehran, Moscow or even your hometown. You get to see the concentric circles and to estimate the number of dead and injured.

When you do the simulation for a faraway city, it’s kind of interesting. When you detonate over your hometown, well, it’s chilling, and that’s the whole point.

Wellerstein spoke recently in New York at “The Dynamics of Possible Nuclear Extinction,” a conference organized by Helen Caldicott, the doctor who gave up her practice to warn the world about nuclear war and radiation. Wellerstein wants to bring home the horror of nuclear war by personalizing it. He said during his talk, “I wanted people to have a way of understanding what nuclear weapons can do that could be personalized to them.”

I bring this up because, for the first time in decades, U.S. and Russian military forces are nose to nose. Late last month in Estonia, U.S. combat vehicles paraded 300 yards from the Russian border. Some U.S. policy experts, like the Cold War diplomat Henry Kissinger, want NATO forces to flex their muscles as a warning to Putin.


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This is supposedly all about Ukraine. “We,” the West, have to defend against the horror coming out of the East. Wait! Wasn’t “communism” the problem, that thing that wanted to conquer the world? The Soviet Union is long gone. What the heck is NATO doing? Why does it still exist? Why did it move east? Didn’t Reagan promise Gorbachev that, if the Soviets allowed Germany to become unified, NATO would not expand “one inch to the east”?

The U.S. power elite is fresh from disasters stretching from Iraq to Libya, but it hasn’t the slightest hesitation about launching a new adventure. There’s not a bit of reflection or soul-searching over the thousands of dead American soldiers, let alone the mountains of dead Arabs who perished for imperial dreams. The politicians? Can you name one who has spoken out against getting involved in Ukraine? Why aren’t they daunted that this time they’re going up against a nuclear power?

The billionaire investor George Soros and the philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy (who beat the drums for the Libyan revolution) joined together in January for a New York Times op-ed headlined “Save Ukraine.” Ukraine will “defend itself militarily,” they said—though this was before the disaster at Debaltseve—but it needs the West’s “generous” support. The country is a valiant “participatory democracy” that needs $15 billion right away and a “commitment” for more. 

Retired General Wesley Clark then dropped the other shoe: weapons. He wrote last month in USA Today that we are facing “Russian aggression” in Ukraine and that, unless Putin pulls back from the region (including from Crimea), the U.S. should send the Kiev forces “all the arms they need.” He says that he’s been to Ukraine six times and that he’s sure “they will fight hard.”

But there is one big, unaddressed problem with such a hard fight. The Ukraine is home to the Chernobyl reactor—whose core exploded in 1986 and which must be buried under a concrete sarcophagus and watched indefinitely. The old sarcophagus must be replaced by next year. It cannot wait out a war.

Also, as Helen Caldicott told me in an interview for my video series “The Struggle,” there are also 15 working reactors in Ukraine. If a missile accidentally hit one or if electricity was cut off from one by fighting, the result is likely to be catastrophic.
My late father was born in the western region of Ukraine, but, luckily, he and his immediate family left before World War I—before Stalin’s famine wiped out millions and before the Nazis and local collaborators exterminated all the Jews they could find. But I don’t have any special knowledge about Ukraine—just what I read.

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