Second Chornobyl: Yunkom mine flooding in Donbas might become a disaster

Ukraine has frozen in panic expectation of the militants’ flooding of the Yunkom mine, located in the occupied part of Donetsk region, where an underground nuclear explosion was conducted in Soviet times. The reason is quite simple: the separatists have no money to pump the water. With reference to “scientists” (including from the Russian Federation), “DPR” is assured that the mine flooding will not have a radiation impact on the environment and will not pollute the groundwater. However, scientists from Kyiv consider only “bad or very bad consequences”, declaring the threat of the emergence of the “second Chernobyl” and ask international partners to prevent a serious environmental catastrophe.

The Yunkom mine (“Young Communard”), located in the village of Bunhe (formerly Yunokomunarsk), 43 km to the north-east of Donetsk, was launched in 1912. It was very fecund. According to Deputy Minister for Occupied Territories Georgiy Tuka, only during the period from 1959 to 1979, it recorded 235 gas emissions, 28 of which resulted in the death of miners. September 16, 1979, an underground nuclear explosion (the “Cleavage” facility) at a depth of 903 meters and a capacity of 300 kilotons was conducted to reduce stresses in the mountain massifs (the official version). It is also rumored that, in fact, the USSR was conducting a military experiment under the guise of industrial necessity.

As a result of the nuclear explosion, a cavity (capsule) with a radius of 5-6 meters was formed around, and a zone of crushing with a radius of 20-25 m was shaped around it. According to official data, in 1979-2000, the level of radioactivity in rocks and mine waters was at the background level. According to unofficial information, it exceeded the norm by half, but it was hushed up.

The last time the mine was comprehensively surveyed in 1999. In 2002, it was decided to close it. Three options were considered: flooding, water disposal to the neighboring Komsomolska mine, direct drainage. In 2015, the government of Viktor Yanukovych chose the third option and since that time the pumping regime has been maintained. However, this method is not cheap, and the occupation authorities of the “DPR” found a “solution” from the situation.

March 22, 2018, the so-called Minenergougol of the self-proclaimed “DPR” announced its decision to flood the Yunkom mine. “Pumping water will be completely suspended on April 14, 2018, now we are dismantling the equipment,” as said in the press release. The decision on flooding was called “the most rational measure from the point of view of ecological safety”, as the flooding of the capsule “will eliminate the negative destructive effect of infiltration water and lateral rocks on it.”

The militants’ plans regarding mine flooding in their report of April 12 were confirmed by the OSCE CMM. The workers of the mine informed observers that, on April 14, several pumps of the mine will be shut off, after which it will be gradually flooded.

A week later, the observers specified the mine workers’ information on the planned flooding. The report of April 20 said that four pumps that regulated the water level in the mine were removed three weeks ago, and the pumps that remained were to be shut down by the end of the month. The OSCE noted that the observers could not confirm the data on the dismantled equipment in the mine since this requires “permission from armed formations.”

It should be noted that as early as June 2017 (when “DPR” announced the flooding of the Poltava and Yenakievska mines, which would lead to the conservation and flooding of the neighboring Yunkom mine), Bunhe residents went to the rally due to fears of withdrawal on the radiation surface. Those pumps that pump water from the neighboring non-working mines, work poorly (they were broken or stopped). The rallies were suppressed; the self-proclaimed authorities promised that “scientists” would be engaged in the case. A few days later, with reference to the “special commission”, the “DPR” media reported that the radioactivity was two to three times lower than the normative.

The “DPR” convinces that the current situation at the mine corresponds to a natural radiation background and does not require special measures for radiation safety; that “wet conservation” and the subsequent flooding of the mine will not have a radiation impact on the population and the environment; the removal of radionuclides from the Cleavage facility is impossible in the same way as contamination of groundwater and surface water.

Scientists from Kyiv have a radically different current of view.

In particular, the Minister of Ecology Ostap Semerak notes that the consequences of the flooding of Yunkom might be “bad or very bad.” According to him, this will negatively affect the environment not only in Ukraine but also in the neighboring countries. He noted that such plans of militants are nothing but terrorism and blackmail, which can lead to a radiation catastrophe – the “second Chornobyl.” The head of the Department of Ecological Safety and Mine Action of Ukraine Maksym Komissarov confirms that possible flooding threatens with radioactive contamination of the region.

Ecologist, coordinator of the direction “Freshwater resources” WWF in Ukraine Olha Denyschyk also warns of the impending catastrophe. According to her, the mine waters saturated with radionuclides will rise, then they will fall into the nearest river (Siversky Donets), then will go to Don, and then all this will come to the Sea of Azov.

“One kilogram of harmful substance is enough to pollute underground water for a small state for hundreds of years, unfortunately, there is no solution yet. The fact that the Sea of Azov will suffer and the people living there is unequivocal, “she said.

In November 2017, the OSCE stated that because of Donbas hostilities, 36 mines that were flooded or completely flooded are not subject to further exploitation. Even then, a significant concentration of nitrogen and phosphorus was reported in the rivers Kalmius, Kalchyk, Siversky Donets, Kleban-Byk. In some cases, the excess of pollutants in the soil reached 17 times.

Immediately after receiving information on plans for flooding the mine, the US State Department called on the Russian Federation and the militants under its control to “act responsibly,” since this could lead to the loss of drinking water to thousands of Ukrainians.

Subsequently, on April 18, the Minister of Ecology of Ukraine Ostap Semerak, speaking in Strasbourg, called on the international community to intervene in the situation. Radio Liberty reports the OSCE Secretariat is ready to help Ukraine in assessing radiation threats.

Nobody owns the real situation of radiation safety at the “Cleavage” facility today. Russian experts were involved in the explosion. Russia keeps archival documents, and Ukraine’s requests to provide any information remain unanswered.