The Zaporozhye nuclear power plant is of strategic importance to both sides of the Ukrainian-Russian conflict. But when it comes to nuclear safety, the current standoff is dangerous.
it is the closest main generator Ukraine Annexed by Russia, Moscow wants the plant to have power over its territory. It also expressed a desire to transfer Zaporozhye’s power to Russian cities as well.
Ukraine, on the other hand, could not afford to lose this asset – Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, which once supplied 20% of its electricity – was Russia Its civilian infrastructure is constrained.
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The site is currently operated by its original Ukrainian staff, but under the control of the Russian military.
The situation is tense. Energoatom, the Ukrainian state-owned operator of the plant, said Russia had just kidnapped Zaporozhye’s deputy director — before Russian engineers took over, they said. This comes a few weeks after the factory manager was kidnapped and released.
Shelling of plants has always been a threat.
Landmines that detonated around the plant have also been linked to sparking fires that have threatened reactors and critical power connections linking the plant to Ukraine’s national grid.
So what are the risks?
The Zaporozhye nuclear power plant consists of six pressurized water reactors. The facility’s sheer size means hundreds of tons of nuclear fuel in the reactor itself, more than 2,000 tons of spent fuel in storage pools, and a dry storage facility on site.
They have a relatively modern design, and their safety features make them safer in an emergency than those in other civilian nuclear disasters such as Chernobyl and Fukushima.
They are also much safer now than when the Ukrainian invasion began. Overseen by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which now has two observers stationed at the plant, all six reactors are in “cold shutdown” with their fuel slowly cooling inside the reactor building.
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The main ongoing risk is site outages. Even when shut down, cooling water must circulate around the reactor fuel to prevent it from melting. The storage pool also needs to be topped up to prevent the spent fuel from overheating and potentially releasing radioactive material.
Just a few days ago, shelling disconnected the last cable supplying power to the site. This is not the first time that the complex has had to switch to backup diesel generators. All equipment is currently operating, but the plant has only stored diesel fuel on site for 10 days.
Of course, another risk is the impact of shelling or missiles. Since the site was occupied by Russia in March, shells have penetrated buildings immediately adjacent to the reactor.
The reactor is a very thick distillation vessel surrounded by a heavy concrete shell, so the immediate risk to them is considered low. However, fire or damage to safety systems such as backup power can cause the fuel to overheat and melt.
If the projectile hits fuel stored in the reactor building or in an external pond, this could lead to the spread of high-level radioactive waste on the site. However, the fuel is not flammable, so the risk to the wider environment may be small.
What is the worst case scenario?
The worst case scenario is complete power outage and damage to the reactor building or safety systems. Very unbelievable in peacetime, but entirely possible in current conflict.
In that case, most international experts believe the situation could be as bad as Fukushima, Japan, in 2011. In that disaster, the loss of electricity caused the nuclear fuel to overheat, and the hydrogen gas produced then exploded, releasing radioactive contaminants into the high atmosphere.
That event released radioactive material on a large scale, which meant evacuating people from there was expensive and required years of environmental cleanup.
Unlike Japan, Zaporozhye staff have time to prepare sausages. But the only sure way to prevent this from happening is to end the battle over the factory.
The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Grossi, is currently negotiating a safe zone in Zaporozhye in Moscow — but neither side is willing to give up control, with accidents still to come in the area.