The many deaths, injuries and displacement of the people caught up in the war in Ukraine have been frequently reported but there is an environmental disaster unfolding which experts are warning is getting worse with every day that the war continues.

The threats range from a potential nuclear energy plant meltdown similar to Chernobyl; the leeching of toxic chemicals into the air, water and soil from dozens of razed industrial chemical plants; nearly half of the country's landmass littered with minefields and unexploded bombs; and war-induced forest fires destroying over 60,000 hectares of national parks and nature reserves.

"The environmental consequences of the war in Ukraine are profound and far-reaching," said Professor Anthony Burke, who specializes in environmental politics and international relations at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Canberra.

"If not addressed now these are issues that will continue to be felt not just in Ukraine but across the globe for many years to come."

The gravest environmental threat in Ukraine is the potential meltdown of Europe's largest nuclear power plant, Zaporizhzhia, which the Russian military took control of in March last year. Currently all of the power station's six reactors are shut down and shelling close to the plant has disconnected main power lines, knocked out radiation-detection sensors and damaged water pipes, the plant's fire station, and the on-site building that houses fresh nuclear fuel and solid radioactive waste.

Professor Burke said that in October last year backup diesel generators at the Zaporizhzhia plant were the only electricity supply keeping highly radioactive fuel rods cool. There have been seven major interruptions to power since the invasion, the last of which occurred two weeks ago.

"It will only take one wrong move and another Chernobyl could happen," Professor Burke said.

Professor Burke said there are scores of other significant environmental impacts that have already occurred throughout Ukraine and continue to worsen.

"The one town of Severodonetsk had 36 chemical plants and many of those are now ruined and are releasing toxic substances into the air, water and soil," Professor Burke said.

"Several dozen large mines, left unattended in Donbass region, have been filled with groundwater, which is bringing toxic pollutants to the land surface."

Ukrainian officials have reported that roughly 40 percent of Ukraine’s territory, which is an area slightly bigger than the state of Victoria, is covered in minefields and unexploded bombs.

"All that land will be unable to be used and left fallow until expensive and lengthy remediation efforts are carried out, and that would realistically take decades," Professor Burke said.

The war has also caused several forest fires that have seriously damaged 60,000 hectares of Ukraine's national parks and nature reserves, and in many cases those reserves became battlefields which saw extensive land clearing for the building of fortifications.

"The disturbance caused to Ukraine's wildlife because of the war has been significant," Professor Burke said.

"The coastline in the south of Ukraine is the most important region in Central Europe for breeding and wintering wetland birds and for the past two years there hasn't been a breeding season for nesting waterbirds.

"It has been reported that over the next couple of years we can expect to see all across Eastern Europe an extra 4,000 kilometres of impenetrable barriers and defence fortifications being built which will divide many large mammal populations like bears, wolves, moose and deer.

"There is a genuine threat that many of the remaining local wildlife populations may go extinct as their old migratory routes are disrupted."

In an effort to shine a light on the growing environmental disaster caused the Russian invasion of Ukraine UNSW Canberra is holding a free public webinar on Monday 5 June at 5:00pm - 6:30pm (AEST).

The webinar includes an expert panel, including some who are members of the Ukraine War Environmental Consequences Work Group (UWEC), who will share their research and suggest ways forward, including mitigating the grave environmental risks and rehabilitating Ukraine's damaged landscapes.

More information about the webinar, 'The Natural Cost of War – the Environmental Impacts of the War in Ukraine' 

Media Contact

Professor Anthony Burke
UNSW Canberra
0412 420 656