Equilibrium/Sustainability — Russia bares nuclear teeth


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As Russian soldiers crossed into Ukraine early Thursday morning, President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinUkrainian state border service says troops attacked from Belarus Menendez: Need to expel Kremlin from international community is in ‘sharp focus’ Lawmakers to receive briefing from Biden administration on Thursday MORE appeared to lay out a thinly veiled threat to the economic and ecological sustainability of any country that dared intervene: nuclear attack.  

“Today’s Russia remains one of the most powerful nuclear states. Moreover, it has a certain advantage in several cutting-edge weapons,” Putin said. 

“No matter who tries to stand in our way … they must know that Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history,” he added. 

The Russian attack on Ukraine rattled U.S. and global stock and energy markets, sending share prices falling and oil prices soaring above $100 a barrel for the first time since 2014, The Wall Street Journal reported. 

Natural gas futures in Europe were up 50 percent and prices of key Russian-exported resources — aluminum, nickel, corn and wheat — also surged.  

“We haven’t had any serious military conflict in Europe for a very long time, so there’s no playbook for this,” investment officer Gregory Perdon told the Journal. “A lot has changed since last night.”  

Today we’ll take the full newsletter to look at two key sustainability implications of the Russian invasion. First, we’ll look at accidental or intentional damage to Ukraine’s fleet of nuclear reactors, exemplified by fighting around Chernobyl. Then we’ll look at the potentially global threat of Russian cyberattacks and sabotage threatening infrastructure and the spread of information around the world.  

For Equilibrium, we are Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Please send tips or comments to Saul at [email protected] or Sharon at [email protected]. Follow us on Twitter: @saul_elbein and @sharonudasin  

Let’s get to it. 

Forces seize Chernobyl nuclear plant

Russian forces reportedly took control of the exclusion zone around the ruins of the Chernobyl nuclear plant on Thursday, highlighting the potential dangers that could arise from potential damage to Ukraine’s fleet of nuclear reactors, which risk being caught in the crossfire.  

First words: “Russian occupation forces are trying to seize the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Our defenders are giving their lives so that the tragedy of 1986 will not be repeated,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky tweeted during the fighting. 

The attack, he added, was “a declaration of war against the whole of Europe.” 

Behind the lines: Zelensky was referring to the 1986 meltdown at Chernobyl — which led to dozens of immediate deaths, hundreds of thousands of victims, and millions of people displaced or otherwise affected, as Viktor Sushko of the Kyiv-based National Research Center for Radiation Medicine told the BBC. 

Prevailing winds also drove radioactive materials west, leading to increased genomic damage in children, according to a 2016 study in Archives of Toxicology. 

Wait — is Chernobyl still active? No. The radioactive remains of the melted-down reactor were encased in a rapidly-built concrete sarcophagus in 1987, which is itself enclosed in the steel New Safe Confinement megastructure completed in 2019.

Nuclear waste storage facilities on-site were endangered by the fighting, and their current status is uncertain, with U.K. news outlet i News reporting that “it is believed that a military strike earlier today hit an area close to Chernobyl.” 

The site has 22,000 cases of spent nuclear fuel, i News reported. 

Is it safe?  “It is impossible to say the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant is safe after a totally pointless attack by the Russians,” Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak told journalists, as reported by Reuters. 

“This is one of the most serious threats in Europe today,” he added. 

A NUCLEAR THREAT BEYOND CHERNOBYL

While Chernobyl is an inactive site, Ukraine has a total of 15 active reactors spread across four power plants — two within a few hundred miles of the former Line of Contact in Donetsk, the front line before this morning’s Russian invasion, i News reported 

The Russian invasion represents perhaps the first full-scale military operations in history in a territory marked by such nuclear installations, raising fears that such plants would be caught in the crossfire — as occurred at a coal-fired plant in Luhansk, near the Line of Contact, on Tuesday. The Luhansk facility caught fire — leaving thousands of residents without power, Bloomberg reported. 

Designed for safety, not war: Ukraine’s nuclear power plants — as indeed, most nuclear plants — weren’t “designed for military protection,” Dmytro Gumenyuk, a head of safety analysis within the state nuclear inspectorate, told i News.   

What if one of the plants were to be destroyed? It would be very bad, Gumenyuk told i News. “In case of the total destruction of the power plant, I think the consequences would be so much worse than at Fukushima and Chernobyl together,” he said. “Europe will be totally contaminated.” 

This adds a wrinkle to a heated ongoing debate: German and U.S. representatives clashed last Friday over Climate Envoy John KerryJohn KerryFive things to know about Nord Stream 2 shutdown What Biden inherited — and what he must do to change course with Putin Overnight Energy & Environment — Court ruling delays oil and gas leasing MORE’s suggestion that zero-carbon nuclear power remain part of the energy mix as countries attempt to move off fossil fuels, Reuters reported. 

Franziska Brantner, parliamentary state secretary in Germany’s Economic Ministry and a member of the Green party, vehemently disagreed with Kerry — also rejecting the idea of transferring nuclear technologies to low-income countries currently dependent on fossil fuels, according to Reuters. 

Why? Ideology. The German Green party began as an anti-nuclear party, and in late December the coalition government — of which they are a principle part — shut down three of the country’s six remaining nuclear plants, even as tensions with Russia loomed, as our colleague Joseph Choi reported for The Hill. 

And now? It’s very hard to say. Germany had planned to close its remaining three reactors this year, and fill the shortfall by burning fossil methane, commonly called natural gas — of which it gets about 55 percent of its supplies from Russia, as we reported Tuesday.   

Last words: With war having broken out, and the Nord Stream 2 pipeline — which would have doubled German imports from Russia — now on hold, Germany Economy Minister Robert Habeck declared on Thursday that his country will have to “buy more gas, but also coal from other countries,” Reuters reported. 

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US on alert amid Russian cyber threats 

As tensions between Washington and Moscow continue to mount following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Thursday, the U.S. government is on high alert for the possibility of widespread cyberattacks, CNN reported. 

A senior FBI cyber official warned U.S. businesses and local governments this week to remain watchful for possible ransomware attacks, just days after other government agencies issued similar warnings to American banks, according to CNN.   

Russian cyberattacks have already been surging in Ukraine: While Russia’s ground invasion into Ukraine may have only begun Thursday, its computer networks had already long been under attack, The Economist reported.  

On Wednesday, attackers shut down the websites of Ukraine’s parliament and other government agencies, while the U.S. and U.K attributed a Feb. 15-16 digital assault on Ukrainian government and bank sites  to Russia’s military intelligence agency, according to The Economist.   

“Cyber playground”: “Ukraine, sadly, has been Russia’s cyber playground for years,” Ciaran Martin, of the U.K.’s National Cyber Security Center, told The Economist.  

Cybersecurity experts have already identified a new strain of “wiper” malware attacking Ukrainian targets, according to The Guardian. The Slovakia-based ESET Research Labs said on Wednesday that it had detected this new data-wiping malware on hundreds of Ukrainian machines, The Guardian reported.  

What might Russian hackers do in the U.S.? There are several ways they could disrupt U.S. cyberspace, with some precedent already set in previous incidents, according to CNN.  

Infrastructure: One way would be to target U.S. infrastructure, which has seen some of the biggest suspected attacks from Russian hackers over the past two years, CNN reported, such as the 2020 SolarWinds hack against several government agencies, as well as the ransomware assault on the Colonial Pipeline last year.    

“It’s possible that they’re in substantial parts of U.S. infrastructure, and are sort of dormant and have capabilities that they haven’t gone and exercised,” Justin Cappos, of the NYU Tandon School of Engineering, told Yahoo Finance.  

Disinformation campaigns: Another possibility lies in Russian-fueled online disinformation campaigns.  

While some of the most notable past attempts include interference in with U.S. elections, American officials accused Russian intelligence of disseminating disinformation about Ukraine as recently as last week.  

Who’s in charge? Most of the online attacks haven’t been directly linked to the Russian state, but there is widespread understanding that the hackers work with the government’s approval, Herb Lin of Stanford University told CNN. 

“They operate under a set of rules that says: ‘you guys do what you want… don’t target Russian stuff and we won’t bother you,'” Lin said. 

 

WILL THE US FIGHT BACK?

Analysts at S&P Global Ratings warned that cyberattacks on Ukraine “could create knock-on effects” around the world, CNN reported. The analysts urged companies working in Ukraine to be cautious, as connections to systems there “might be used as a pivot point to other targets.”   

Because Ukraine also doesn’t have its own spy satellites, the country gets its spy imagery from commercial satellites — some of which may in the U.S., Lin told CNN. Lin described such satellites as “an obvious place” Russians could target, adding that every American system that helps the Ukrainian military “becomes fair game for the Russians to target.”   

Cybersecurity stocks on the rise: While most major indexes plummeted on Thursday, cybersecurity stocks surged, with companies like Telos up more than 14 percent and Palo Alto Networks up more than 10 percent by early afternoon, CNBC reported.  

Biden presented with cyberattack options: U.S. intelligence and military officials have presented President BidenJoe BidenUkrainian state border service says troops attacked from Belarus Ukrainian minister lays out steps he wants international community to take against Russia Menendez: Need to expel Kremlin from international community is in ‘sharp focus’ MORE with a series of cyberattack options “on a scale never before contemplated,” two sources told NBC News on Thursday.  

While no final decisions have been made, some of these options include disrupting Russian internet connectivity, turning off power and tampering with railroad switches, NBC reported.   

“You could do everything from slow the trains down to have them fall off the tracks,” one individual briefed on the matter told NBC.   

A government divided: U.S. government officials remain divided about whether to proceed with such cyber warfare — with one side fearful of escalating conflict and the other pushing for a robust cyber response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, NBC reported.   

Regardless of whether the U.S. moves forward, the country’s cyber capabilities are abundant but also come with a risk of Russian retaliation, according to NBC.   

Last words: “Cyberweapons are going to be used in a way we haven’t used other weapons,” James Lewis, a cyber expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told NBC. “It gives us options we didn’t have before.” 

Thursday Threats 

A few issues threatening various corners of the world outside the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

California adopts first-in-nation policy to address threat of microplastics 

  • California on Wednesday became the first state to adopt a comprehensive strategy for the reduction of microplastics, part of a broad effort to protect the state’s marine environment. “Microplastics are poisoning the ocean, both across the planet and off the California coast,” California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot said in a statement. 

Climate change could destroy parts of Underground Railroad 

  • Sea-level rise is changing the landscape of Dorchester, Md., which contains a key segment of Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad, Virginia-based ABC affiliate 13NewsNow reported. That means the seven-mile Joseph Stewart’s Canal, which Tubman dug by hand with other enslaved and freed Black people, is experiencing regular flooding, according to 13NewsNow. 

With water shortages looming over main agricultural region, Feds close tap further 

  • Federal officials said on Wednesday that they couldn’t send any water to farmers in California’s Central Valley — which grows most of the nation’s “fruits, nuts and vegetables,” the Associated Press reported. The move “is devastating to the agricultural economy and to those people that rely on it,” said Ernest Conant, regional director for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. “But unfortunately we can’t make it rain.” 

 

Please visit The Hill’s sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you on Friday.  

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