Russian aggression undermining Japan-Ukraine radioactivity research project

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Kenji Nanba

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is jeopardizing a joint Japan-Ukraine research project into radioactive materials, among other subjects. Kenji Nanba, director at Fukushima University’s Institute of Environmental Radioactivity, talked about the war’s adverse effects on scientific cooperation in a recent interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun. The following are excerpts from the interview:

As the fierce fighting continues in Ukraine, I am reminded anew of a moving quote from French bacteriologist Louis Pasteur, meaning, “science does not belong to a single country.”

Ukraine and Japan have experienced the two worst nuclear accidents in history: the 1986 disaster at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine during the Soviet era, and the 2011 catastrophe at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.’s Fukushima No. 1 plant.

Our countries have a long history of joint research, and have together explored the effects of these terrible events on human health and the environment. Even before the accident in Fukushima, research was underway on radiation exposure, primarily at Nagasaki and Hiroshima universities, located in the only two cities to have suffered from atomic bombing.

In 2017, Fukushima University’s Institute of Environmental Radioactivity, where I serve as director, and the University of Tsukuba launched a joint, large-scale project with research organizations in Ukraine. The project aims to measure the movement of radioactive materials in forests and rivers in the off-limits zone set up within a 30-kilometer-radius of the Chornobyl plant.

In recent years, the Ukrainian government has pursued a policy of making effective use of the off-limits zone, such as by establishing solar- and wind-power generation facilities, conducting tours to help learn lessons from the nuclear accident, and establishing a nature reserve. I believe our research findings will be helpful in terms of future decisions for this policy.

The nuclear accident in Ukraine occurred 25 years before the one in Fukushima. As such, it could be said that Fukushima will resemble Chornobyl a quarter-century down the road. Of course, the two accidents were on different scales and the amount of radioactive cesium released in Fukushima is estimated to have been about 20% to 40% of that released in Chornobyl. Ukraine’s off-limits zone stretches over 2,600 square kilometers, whereas in Fukushima Prefecture, the zone designated as being “difficult to return to” currently covers about 300 square kilometers.

However, the findings from our observations — such as how radioactive materials move around and the effects they have on plants and animals in the mid- to long term — are universal. Our findings will certainly prove useful if there is another nuclear disaster someday. The research conducted in Ukraine and the way the country makes use of the land [around Chornobyl] will also provide valuable reference points for Fukushima in its reconstruction efforts.

The joint research project is bearing fruit. For example, we have discovered seasonal changes in the concentration of radioactive materials in rivers and developed a system for predicting how such materials might spread in the event of a forest fire.

Five researchers from Fukushima University had been scheduled to travel to Ukraine to conduct observations in the area around Chornobyl in mid-March. However, Russia’s invasion of its neighbor meant the trip had to be suspended. We have no idea how things will turn out. We could lose valuable data and observation equipment. Even if our work were to continue, we would likely have to make drastic changes.

Some of the young Ukrainian researchers who visited Japan have volunteered to join their country’s Territorial Defense Forces, which allows ordinary citizens to enlist. I believe that a mechanism should be established to provide support to help researchers resume their work when a ceasefire comes into effect.

I was deeply shocked by Russia’s shelling of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. Even if the attack was not intended to trigger an accident, radioactive materials could have been released. If the plant’s water pipes and power supply system had been damaged and thus unable to cool the spent nuclear fuel, there could have been a catastrophe. The Ukrainian government has estimated that an accident at the plant would be 10 times bigger than the Chornobyl tragedy.

Researchers from both countries are beginning to think about what they can do to help. Ukraine has a strong tradition of mathematics and many of the country’s researchers excel in computational science. Currently they are looking for ways to contribute their skills through, for example, predicting how radioactive materials could spread, as well as how to safely evacuate people in the event of a disaster.

There are numerous lessons that can be learned from the two nuclear calamities. Research must continue, as radioactive materials have long-lasting effects. Ukraine has a mountain of scientific issues to address, such as clarifying why radioactive materials were detected in the agricultural products of certain areas, returning residents to areas around the off-limits zone and dealing with people who wish to farm in such places.

The world is once again turning to nuclear power in an attempt to achieve decarbonization. To prepare for possible mishaps, Japanese and Ukrainian researchers must leverage their knowledge and experience and make it available for the world to share.

We have two Ukrainians and a Russian at our research institute in Fukushima. Even though they work together, I am very much concerned that their home countries are hurting each other, and that their countries’ cooperative relations are cracking due to selfish political logic. Science belongs to no one country — I hope the day will come when we can say this with all our hearts.

— This interview was conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer Hiroyuki Oyama.

Kenji Nanba

Director at Fukushima University’s Institute of Environmental Radioactivity

Born in 1964, Nanba took up a professorship at Fukushima University in 2010. He served as director of the institute from 2015 to 2018, and has held the position anew since 2020. He specializes in environmental microbiology.