Key environmental issues, associated with Russian invasion in Ukraine 24-31 March 2022

1 April 2022, 17:27

Russian invasion in Ukraine, which has been ongoing for over a month since February 24, has created multiple environmental risks, which are escalating and threatening to increase the number of war-related civilian casualties. The invasion has already resulted in thousands of casualties, including children, and severe damage to the economy, infrastructure, environment and the natural heritage of Ukraine.

Ukraine calls on the contracting parties to major environmental treaties to suspend operation of such treaties in regard to the aggressor country and to terminate Russia's membership in the governing and advisory bodies. Relevant appeals were sent to 13 UN conventions.

Damage to nuclear facilities, nuclear and radiation safety threats

Nuclear and radiation safety of facilities in the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone continues to be a subject of major concern. Information on status of these facilities in inaccessible because:

A) Chornobyl radiological laboratory was looted and destroyed by Russian troops;

B) connection was lost with the monitoring posts of the Automated Radiation Control System (ARCS), data transfer disrupted.

When ARCS was still functional, at the beginning of the armed aggression it has recorded the radiation background levels up to 8 times at 6 observation points, which was caused by violation of radionuclide-contaminated soil due to military troops movement.

On 28 March a Russian military convoy crossed the highly contaminated area “Red Forest”, kicking up clouds of radioactive dust. Data from ARCS on radiation levels in the area is not available. It was reported that Russian troops were disturbing the ground cover in radiation-contaminated areas of the Exclusion Zone by building temporary fortifications. It is currently impossible to assess the impact on radiation levels.

Zaporizhzhya NPP, which was captured by Russian troops on March 4, is being used by the invaders as a military base, with heavy weapons and ammunition stored on its territory. ZNPP is under Russian military control. It has 11 employees of Russian state company Rosatom, who interfere in the work of the station's staff.

On March 28 at 14-00 the compound of Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology, which houses nuclear research reactor “Neutron source”, was once more shelled by Russian troops. Multiple shillings were targeting the facility in the past week, previously on March 26. According to the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine, it is currently impossible to assess in detail the extent of the damage and its impact on nuclear and radiation safety due to the intense fighting that continues around this nuclear installation.

On Tuesday, March 29, IAEA Director Rafael Mariano Grossi arrived in Ukraine to organise urgent technical assistance and to ensure the safety and security of the country’s nuclear facilities.

On Thursday, March 31, the IAEA announced that the russian forces had handed over control of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant to Ukrainian personnel in writing and had begun withdrawing two columns of their troops toward Belarus. The third column left the Chernobyl satellite city of Slavutych and also moved towards Belarus. During the withdrawal of troops, the premises of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant were looted, equipment and other valuables were stolen. According to the State Agency of Ukraine for the Management of the Exclusion Zone, outsiders were no longer at the Chornobyl NPP site as of the evening of March 31.

Forest fires in Chornobyl exclusion zone

Since the invading forces took control of the Chernobyl exclusion zone, their actions pose a significant risk of radiation catastrophe, both as a result of accidents at industrial sites and as a result of burning of forests and fallow lands, which accumulated a significant amount of radionuclides in the period after 1986 catastrophe.

During the occupation of the exclusion zone, fires have already been recorded in natural complexes and abandoned villages on an area of about 10287 ha, in particular during 28.03.2022 (as of 18:00), after two days without fires, new fires were identified which passed over an additional 176 ha of natural ecosystems.


Fig.1 Territories with forest fires in the Exclusion Zone as of 18:00 03/28/2022

Currently, only large fires are being detected by satellite imagery (VIIRS, MODIS), but there is a possibility of a significant number of smaller and low-intensity fires that are not recorded. Such fires, under favourable weather conditions and untimely detection and extinguishing, are able to spread over large areas and acquire signs of emergency in the shortest time.

Due to the cold and humid weather conditions, these fires are currently self-extinguishing, but with the increase in temperature and lack of control over the fire situation, fire risks are expected to increase in the near future. Activities of Russian troops in the highly contaminated area of “Red Forest” are posing the most grave concerns.

Recent attacks on infrastructure and industrial sites

The Russian Federation constantly carries out rocket attacks on storages of oil products across all territory of Ukraine. Rocket attacks on oil depots in Western Ukraine are carried out from the territory of Belarus and from the Black Sea.

On March 24, artillery ammunition was fired at an oil depot in Kalinovka, Fastiv district, Kyiv region. Shelling by Russian troops has set oil tanks ablaze.

On March 26, a rocket attack hit fuel tanks on the territory of one of the industrial enterprises in Lviv, which led to a large-scale fire that was extinguished only on Sunday morning.

On March 27 in Lutsk due to a missile strike on the oil depot a fire broke out. Another large-scale fire broke out on March 28 because of a missile strike on an oil depot near Rivne.

On March 29, the Russian army conducted a missile attack at the oil depot of a military base near Starokostiantyniv, 47 km from Khmelnytsky city.

On March 30 another strike hit an oil depot in Dnipro city.

Destruction of oil depots and large fires are resulting in toxic pollution of atmospheric air, contamination of land and water resources with hazardous substances all over Ukraine.

Chemical contamination

Russian troops are increasingly using banned incendiary munitions with white phosphorus, which threatens large-scale fires and chemical contamination of soils. Last week, phosphorus bombs were used in the Luhansk region during attacks on Popasna and Rubizhne. On March 30 russians dropped phosphorous bombs on the town of Maryanka in Donetsk region, causing a dozen fires. On March 22, they also used these munitions on the outskirts of Kyiv.

The toll of environmental damage from Russian invasion is immense and is growing every day. Fuel spillages, pollution from destroyed military equipment and spent weapons, as well as exploded missiles and air bombs all contaminate the soil and groundwater with chemicals and heavy metals. More than 1,100 missiles were already launched on Ukraine, about 4,000 units of military equipment of various types were destroyed. This will lead to an accumulation of carcinogenic debris. Even after the war, some environmental effects will take years to emerge.

With its current mode of military action Russia is gravely violating international law. Pursuant to Article 55, paragraphs 1 and 2, of the Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions on the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I) of 8 June 1977, military action must respect restrictions and principles, which are aimed to protect the environment from a wide, long-lasting and serious damage. Such protection includes the prohibition of the use of methods or means of warfare which are intended to cause or are expected to harm the natural environment and thereby harm the health or survival of the population. Geneva conventions also prohibit harm to the environment as retaliation.

Damages to natural reserves and protected ecosystems

As a result of the invasion, our natural heritage is being progressively damaged. Today, more than one third of the total territory of protected areas is being used by Russian troops in military operations against the Ukrainian people. As of now, dozens of nature and biosphere reserves and national nature parks have suffered extensive damage due to Russian aggression. The aggressor is conducting military operations on the territory of 900 objects of the nature reserve fund with an area of 12406.6 sq. km (1.24 million hectares), which is about a third of the area of the nature reserve fund of Ukraine. About 200 territories of the Emerald Network with an area of 2.9 million hectares are under threat of destruction. Particular concern is about destruction of Ramsar sites at the coasts of the Azov and Black Seas and in the lower reaches of the Danube and Dnieper.

As a result of hostilities, part of the forests in Kyiv, Chernihiv, Sumy, Luhansk, Donetsk and Kherson oblasts are currently under the control of the invaders. There are already a large number of fallen missiles in the forests, as well as unexploded ordnance. Experience has shown that this will pose a potential threat to humans and biodiversity for decades to come.

Damage to freshwater resources

During advance of russian troops, shelling and bombing of cities and infrastructure, extensive damage was incurred to water supply and sewerage systems and communications, which directly threaten freshwater supplies, causing pollution of rivers, which are sources of water for industrial, municipal enterprises and the population.

Wastewater treatment facilities of water utilities KP "Severodonetskvodokanal", KP "Lysychanskvodokanal", KP "Rubizhanske VUVKG", KP "Popasnyansky Vodokanal", KP "Oblvodokanal" (village Verkhnya Krynytsia Vasylivsky district of Zaporizhzhia region) were severely damaged. The wastewater treatment process is not provided for Severodonetsk, Lysychansk, Rubizne, Popasna and part of Zaporizhya, causing pollution of water resources by untreated wastewater.

Black Sea and Azov Sea

According to the statement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, the Russian Federation deployed naval mines as an uncontrolled drifting ammunition in the Black Sea. Drifting mines that were found March 26-28, 2022 off the coasts of Turkey and Romania. These mines were seized by the Russian armed forces in 2014 during the military invasion and temporary occupation of the Ukrainian city of Sevastopol. Therefore, Russia was using sea mines it seized in 2014 in conjunction with a disinformation campaign and false claims in an attempt to discredit Ukraine as source of this threat to civil navigation. Ukraine insists on bringing Russia to international responsibility for illegal activities in the Black Sea, war crimes and, in particular, the use of sea mines as indiscriminate weapons spread uncontrollably in the Black Sea.

On the use of drifting mines by Russia in the Black Sea, Ukraine, adhering to its international obligations, Ukraine has notified the International Maritime Organization during an extraordinary session of the Council and within the framework of IMO Legal Committee, as well as international partners through the channels the International automated service (NAVTEX).

Currently, sea traffic from all Ukrainian ports in the Black Sea is suspended. Dozens of commercial vessels remain in ports due to the threat of attacks by the Russian navy, capture or detonation of sea mines. In the first days of the invasion, five commercial vessels were hit by Russian missiles, one ship sank, and two more ships were captured and brought into the commercial ports of Crimea ("Athena" and the dry cargo ship "Princess Nicole").

In the Azov Sea on March 24 large Russian landing vessel Orsk was destroyed and sunk in the port town of Berdyansk, several other russian vessels were damaged. Extensive operations of Russian naval forces continue in the Azov Sea.

In the case of the Black Sea, there are gross violations of the Bucharest Convention for the Protection of the Black Sea against Pollution.

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