Ukrainian Ecology Minister Ostap Semerak said the potential existed for a “radiation catastrophe” if plans to flood the Yunkom coal mine go ahead, The Irish Times reports.
Staff at the mine in separatist territory 40 kilometers northeast of Donetsk told the OSCE monitoring mission last week that some of the pumps in the mine would be shut off around 14 April, allowing water to gradually flood the mine.
A 2017 OSCE report on the environmental impact of the conflict in Ukraine said Yunkom “poses a singular threat” because flooding it “could release up to 500 cubic meters of radiation-contaminated mine waters into the ground water table,” as cited by the Dublin paper.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert tweeted about the plan to flood the mine on 13 April and urged “Russia and its proxy authorities to act responsibly.”
Mine staff told the OSCE monitors it was not clear how possible leakages or increased pressure from flooding the mine could threaten the integrity of the “capsule” thought to surround the site of the nuclear detonation.
“However, the deputy chief engineer and three other persons … said the current status of the capsule is not known,” the OSCE reported.
Since the Soviet Union detonated a small nuclear device in the mine to free trapped gas in 1979, pumps have kept it dry. Separatist officials say radioactivity levels in the mine are normal and that flooding it would pose no threat of radioactive contamination, The Irish Times says.
Separatist authorities said it was too expensive to keep the pumps running, the Human Rights in Ukraine website says.
The 1979 nuclear bomb used in the mine had a very small yield of 300 tons of TNT, The Kyiv Post writes. Experts hoped the blast would reduce the buildup of stress in rock formations thus preventing methane explosions at the mine, which was notorious for the frequency of such deadly accidents.
Such civilian use of nuclear weapons was not unusual: “Soviet authorities conducted at least 124 ‘peaceful nuclear blasts to benefit the union’s economy’ under the classified ‘Program No. 7.’ At least three of the operations ended up causing massive releases of radioactive fallout,” the Kyiv paper says.