Zaporizhzhia: Ukraine’s largest nuclear plant is under threat. But experts say a Chernobyl-sized disaster is unlikely


Nuclear experts are eager to defuse some of the more alarming warnings, explaining that the greatest threat is closest to the plant itself and does not warrant warnings for all of Europe. Experts are particularly wary of comparisons to the Chernobyl disaster, a repeat of which is incredibly unlikely, they said.

“It is not very likely that this plant will be damaged,” Leon Cizelj, president of the European Nuclear Society, told CNN. “In the highly unlikely event that it does, the radioactive problem would mainly affect Ukrainians living nearby,” rather than spreading across Eastern Europe, as was the case with Chernobyl, he said.

“Using past experience, Fukushima could be a worst-case scenario comparison,” Cizelj added, referring to the severe but more localized meltdown at the Japanese factory in 2011. The most pressing dangers would be faced by Ukrainians the one near the factory, which is on the banks of the Dnipro River, south of the city of Zaporizhzhya, and by the Ukrainian staff who still work there.

Here’s what you need to know about the clashes at the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant and what their consequences could be.

What is happening at the Zaporizhzhya factory?

According to Energoatom, Ukraine’s state-run nuclear power company, shellfire at the Zaporizhzhya plant has in recent weeks damaged a dry storage facility — where barrels of spent nuclear fuel are kept at the plant — as well as radiation monitoring detectors.

On Aug. 5, several explosions near the electrical switchboard caused a power outage and a reactor was disconnected from the grid, said the head of the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Rafael Mariano Grossi told the UN Security Council that the situation had deteriorated “very alarmingly”.

Kiev has repeatedly accused Russian troops of storing heavy weapons in the complex and using them as cover to carry out attacks, knowing Ukraine cannot fire back without risking hitting one of the plant’s six reactors. Moscow, meanwhile, has claimed that Ukrainian troops are targeting the site. Both sides have tried to point the finger at the other for threatening nuclear terrorism.

The call for an IAEA mission to visit the complex is growing. But despite the concerns, the fighting continued.

On Tuesday, Ukrainian authorities said the town of Nikopol, across the Dnipro River from the plant, had come under renewed rocket fire.

“The shelling has endangered the safety of operators working at the site and there are reports that an employee was hit by shrapnel and taken to hospital,” Henry Preston, communications manager at the London-based World Nuclear Association, told reporters. cnn.

He called the professionalism of the workers under the occupation “remarkable” and the use of an operational power plant for military activities “unreasonable”.

Could Russia close the factory?

Ukraine’s state-run nuclear power plant, Energoatom, claimed on Friday that Russian forces at the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant “plan to stop working power stations in the near future and disconnect them from the communication lines that supply power to Ukraine’s energy system.” .”

“The plant is designed to be shut down and put into a cold state” if operators so decide, Bob Kelley, a former deputy director at the IAEA, told CNN. The Russians could alternatively run “one unit on partial power to power the plant itself.”

Shutting down the plant would put pressure on parts of southern Ukraine, which could face the winter without energy.

But Kelley said it’s unlikely Russia would abandon the factory altogether. “This was a war prize they wanted. It’s very valuable,” he said.

Instead, Moscow would be expected to divert electricity produced in Zaporizhzhya to Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine, which Russian officials have openly said they intend to do, although no timetable for such action has been announced.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said Friday that the electricity generated at the plant belongs to Ukraine.

“It is clear that the electricity from Zaporizhzhya is Ukrainian electricity and it is necessary – especially in winter – for the Ukrainian population. And this principle must be fully respected,” Guterres said during a visit to the Ukrainian port city of Odessa.

How safe are the plant’s nuclear reactors?

Modern nuclear power plants are extremely well fortified to prevent damage from all kinds of attacks, such as earthquakes, and Zaporizhzhya is no exception.

“Like all nuclear power plants, Zaporizhzhya contains several redundant safety systems, which are highly effective under normal conditions,” James Acton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told CNN.

“The problem is that nuclear power plants are not designed for war zones and, under plausible circumstances, all of these systems could fail,” he added.

The plant’s six reactors – of which only two are currently in operation – are protected by steel and several meters thick concrete shells. “Random shells can’t really destroy this, it would be really unlikely,” Cizelj said.

If the reactors were attacked by deliberate, targeted shelling, the risk would increase — but even that would require “very, very skilled” operation, he said.

Although Ukraine is not a member of the European Union, Cizelj told CNN he expected Zaporizhzhya’s precautions to be “similar” to those of EU countries, where factories must adhere to strict nuclear safety rules.

What is the worst case scenario?

Nuclear power plants use a number of additional safety systems, such as diesel generators and external grid connections, to keep reactors cool. Zaporizhzhia also uses a spray pond, a reservoir in which hot water from the plant is cooled. If those systems failed, the nuclear reactor would quickly heat up and cause a meltdown.

That would be the worst-case scenario, experts said. But while it would be disastrous on a local level, they explained: it would not have a major impact on Europe in a broader sense.

“The main danger here is damage to the systems needed to keep the fuel in the reactor cool — external power lines, emergency diesel generators, equipment to remove heat from the reactor core,” Acton said.

“In a war it may be impossible to repair this equipment or take countermeasures. In the worst case scenario, the fuel could melt and release large amounts of radioactivity into the environment.”

Ukrainian nuclear power plant facing "grave hour"  UN watchdog says:

An attack on structures used to store spent nuclear fuel — fuel that is removed after being used in a reactor — also poses a risk, with the potential to release radioactive material into the environment. But, experts said, it wouldn’t travel far.

The head of Energoatom, Petro Kotin, said a strike earlier in August was close to the processed fuel storage area. “This is very dangerous, because the missiles landed 10 to 20 meters away from the storage, but if they hit the containers with the processed fuel, it would have been a radiation accident,” Kotin said on Ukrainian television.

If a container is hit, “it will be a local accident on the territory of the factory and nearby territory. If it is two to three containers, the affected area will increase,” he added.

How is Zaporizhzhya different from Chernobyl?

Shelling around Zaporizhzhya has sparked warnings of another “Chernobyl” – the world’s worst nuclear disaster ever.

But there are plenty of differences between the two Ukrainian power plants, and experts argue that a repeat of the 1986 disaster is essentially impossible.

The Chernobyl plant used Soviet-era RBMK reactors, which lacked a modern containment structure — a concrete and steel dome designed to prevent the release of radiation.

In contrast, each of the six reactors at the Zaporizhzhia plant are pressurized water reactors encapsulated in a solid steel vessel, housed in a concrete containment building. The design is called VVER, the Russian acronym for water-water-energetic reactor.

“The brakes on these reactors are much much better,” Cizelj said. “If there were damage to these reactors, it would be much easier to shut it down.”

The magnitude of a hypothetical meltdown would also be much smaller than Chernobyl’s, experts said. After the 1986 meltdown, the fallout spread over much of the Northern Hemisphere, while some 150,000 square kilometers in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine were contaminated, according to the IAEA. That contamination spread up to 500 kilometers north of the site.
Signs warn against entering the Red Forest around Chernobyl, one of the most contaminated nuclear sites in the world.

Experts instead suggest that the feasible worst-case scenario would be more like another, more recent disaster.

“Fukushima is a better analogy than Chernobyl,” Acton said. “In that case, evacuations could be necessary for tens of kilometers around the factory, especially against the wind. In the middle of a war, that would be extremely dangerous.”

Any fallout would spread about 10 or 20 kilometers from Zaporizhzhya before it ceased to pose serious health risks, experts suggest.

“If someone could cause the reactors’ meltdown,[gases]could escape into the atmosphere and they would travel downwind until they are washed out of the atmosphere,” Cizelj said. “With distance, dilution occurs — so very quickly the dilution becomes enough that the impact doesn’t become very serious to the environment and people’s health.”

But for people living in the war-torn southern Ukraine, a nuclear disaster is not the most immediate danger. “If you compare it to the other risks they face, this risk is not very high,” he added.

CNN’s Eliza Mackintosh contributed to the report.

The Valley Voice
The Valley Voice
Christopher Brito is a social media producer and trending writer for The Valley Voice, with a focus on sports and stories related to race and culture.


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