Can the UN's mission to Europe's largest nuclear power plant prevent a Chernobyl-style catastrophe?
A mighty explosion rattles a small town, whose residents wake up to scenes of a fire raging in the distance. Thousands of people flee their homes in what will soon become a new exclusion zone. Radioactive clouds spread across several European countries as precipitation poisons their lands, making large cities uninhabitable.
And no, nobody pushed the nuclear button. All it could take to cause a major disaster, of this sort, is continued fighting on the ground around Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in a Ukrainian town.
RT explains the dangers of shelling the Zaporozhye NPP and considers the likelihood of a new Chernobyl.
Russian forces took control of the Zaporozhye plant back in March 2022. A major fire broke out nearby in the same month, after which the plant was shelled several times, but it was only the beginning. Recently, the volume of alarming news about the facility has been growing.
Russia claims that the Ukrainians are deliberately targeting the hazardous site. The last attack attempt was made by Ukrainian troops on Thursday when representatives of the IAEA mission were at the station, Moscow insists.
Over 40 motor boats, divided into two groups and carrying more than 250 Ukrainian special operations troops and foreign mercenaries, reportedly tried to land on the coast of the Kakhovka reservoir not far from Energodar, where the nuclear power plant is located.
The assailants were quickly spotted and targeted by Russia’s Su-30 jets and Ka-52 attack helicopters. Those strikes sank some 20 boats, while the rest turned and retreated. The remaining Ukrainian troops were than targeted by Russian artillery as they tried to come ashore, the Defence Ministry in Moscow said.
As a result of the attack, only one reactor out of six was operational for most of the day, officials have explained. The first four reactors were forced to shut down even earlier.
On August 25, Energoatom reported an unprecedented complete cutoff of the NPP from the Ukrainian grid. The military-civilian administration of Zaporozhye Region explained that it was caused by the emergency protection system, which automatically disconnected the main units.
“A strike by Ukraine’s forces on high-voltage power lines in the area of the Zaporozhye NPPresulted in a fire in the security zone of the 750 kV power line. The fire caused a short circuit. The emergency protection system turned off two power units followed by a power outage in the whole of the Zaporozhye Region,” Yevgeny Balitsky, the head of the Zaporozhye administration, wrote.
He says the units which were shut down last week are currently working at 60% and 80% of their capacity respectively.
At the same time, the Zaporozhye plant remains a part of Ukraine’s power grid and is run by Ukrainian staff. It supplies electricity to nearby regions through three 750 kV lines and one 330kV line.
Apparently aware of the questionable logic behind accusing Russia of shelling its own positions, the Americans and their western allies have so far refrained for laying the blame squarely on Moscow. Bonnie Jenkins, the US Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security, said she could not give any confirmation as to where the shelling was coming from. But, she added, “we would not be in this situation if Russia would simply withdraw and give the site back to Ukraine.”
A joint statement by 42 countries called on Moscow to do so in mid-August.
What the international community has been able to achieve so far is to agree on dispatching an emergency IAEA mission, which arrived at the Zaporozhye NPP on September 1. The team includes experts from Poland, Lithuania, Serbia, China, France, Italy, Jordan, Mexico, Albania, and North Macedonia. Given fears that fighting in the area – which has damaged power lines and caused fires – could lead to disaster, the mission intends to inspect the condition of the NPP and measure radiation levels, the Wall Street Journal reports. They have also brought critical spare parts for the plant.
Nuclear energy expert Valentin Gibalov says the IAEA’s main objective is to conduct an inventory of radioactive and nuclear materials, as the agency lacks the power to influence the fighting, let alone stop it completely.
“They are coming to count new fuel assemblies at the power plant, take a look at the control systems, etc. They can say what they think, of course, suggest a safer way to move forward, but IAEA representatives can’t stop the military action,” he told RT.
Indeed, the source of the problem is not going away. The Russian Defense Ministry claims Kiev continues to stage provocations in order to create the threat of a major nuclear disaster in Zaporozhye. Ukraine responds with accusations of Russian actions. Mikhail Podoliak, an adviser to the head of the Office of the President, has alleged that Russian troops targeted the corridors used by the IAEA mission to get to the power plant.
Will the plant survive?
The decision to build the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant was passed by the Council of Ministers of the USSR in 1977. It has 6 VVER pressurized water reactors, generating a total of about 6,000 MW, which makes it the most powerful in Europe. The first of its six reactors was put into operation in late 1984, less than 18 months before the infamous Chernobyl disaster.
According to Valentin Gibalov, the 40-year-old plant is considerably more vulnerable to external threats than a modern facility. But even today, 100% guaranteed protection from military strikes would be unrealistic, he says.
“It’s true that the possibility of a terrorist attack is considered when nuclear power plants are designed today, but one almost never expects the facility to be resilient to artillery fire or aerial bombs, and the military can always find ways to inflict substantial damage on any plant. Massive attacks on the ZNPP could result in a Fukushima-sized nuclear emergency.
“This mainly applies to the two units which remain online. The reactors which are in ‘cold shutdown’ are less disaster-prone, but some leakage can still occur if the containment building is damaged or the energy supply or cooling systems are completely disabled. This, however, would require a deliberate large-scale attack,” Gibalov says.
Sergey Mukhametov, an assistant professor at Moscow State University’s Faculty of Geography, says a nuclear power plant is, hypothetically, supposed to to capable of withstanding the impact of a plane crash.
“The Fukushima plant easily survived a major earthquake. It was then hit by a tsunami wave higher than the level it had been designed for, but even that wasn’t critical. What caused the meltdown was seawater flooding the emergency generators powering the pumps and the resultant loss of reactor core cooling. That led to overheating and the release of radioactivity.
“However, a nuclear power plant will inevitably be crippled by sustained shelling. It is a sophisticated facility, which could be compromised by disabling the cooling systems, for instance. It requires other resources as well. The reactors must obviously be shut down in a safe manner, but it’s a highly complex process. On top of that, many cities rely on the ZNPP, which is the largest in Europe, for power. Not Kiev itself, but we’re talking about almost half of Ukraine, which this [Ukrainian] government is apparently no longer interested in,” he said.
Vladimir Rogov, a member of the military-civilian administration of the Zaporozhye Region, reported on August 29 that a Ukrainian strike had penetrated the roof of Special Unit 1, which, according to Rogov, is used to store fresh fuel for the reactors. Valentin Gibalov says such incidents do not pose an immediate threat.
“A special unit of a nuclear power plant is a place where medium- and low-activity radioactive waste accumulates in the course of work, such as contaminated clothes or wastewater left after equipment deactivation. Just a hole in the roof is no big deal. If youdestroy the whole unit, you will end up with a local contamination which may affect the neighboring area, but nothing more than that,” he explained.
He added, however, that the Zaporozhye NPP also has a dry cask storage facility for spent fuel, where the level of radioactivity poses a much bigger threat.
“A direct hit by a 155 mm shell, for example, could destroy this storage. But you really need a very high level of precision. If you just strike close to it, nothing will happen,” he said.
Incidentally, 155 mm howitzers are supplied to the Ukrainian armed forces as part of foreign aid.
“A more dangerous scenario would be the destruction of the reactors’ containment buildings. This absolutely can’t be done by accident, this would have to be a deliberate operation to create a radioactive disaster. I hope that neither side wants to see the events take a catastrophic turn. But one can only hope,” Valentin Gibalov said.
According to Sergey Mukhametov, if a reactor were to blow up, the local authorities would have to resort to the practices used to manage the Chernobyl accident.
“Depending on the scale they would have to impose a new exclusion zone, destroying everything in the area. No scenario can be ruled out. It’s obvious to everybody that the best solution is to leave the Zaporozhye NPP alone, but this is not what’s happening. I’m sure it’s obvious to the military commanders as well, but they have their own goals and priorities,” he added.
Who is at risk?
The impact of a possible meltdown at Zaporozhye will depend on where exactly radioactivity will be released into the air or water. Sergey Mukhametov says all countries around Ukraine may be affected.
“Talking about air masses, the bad news for Russia is that the ZNPP is located at a latitude where western disturbances prevail, which means that west winds prevail over other winds, and we get air masses blowing in from the Atlantic towards the Ural mountains. Admittedly, on a given day, the wind may be blowing in the other direction, towards Europe. As we remember, back in 1986, Geiger counters were clicking all across Europe even before the USSR reported about the Chernobyl accident,” he said.
Radioactive dust will not stay airborne forever but will settle on the territories is sweeps over. This is the reason why, as some data suggest, the USSR deliberately produced radioactive precipitation after the Chernobyl disaster so that contaminated substances would settle before reaching densely populated cities.
“Radioactive rain can happen naturally. But you must remember that rainwater brings radiation down onto the ground where it contaminates the soil and then percolates into underground water. The area of contamination can thus spread over time,” Mukhametov explained.
A release of radioactivity into water presents a different scenario.
“Any nuclear reactor needs cooling, unless the plant, like Fukushima, is located on the coast,” Mukhametov says.
“Special ponds are built to hold water that circulates around the plant cooling it. It’s like a car engine. If water from these ponds seeps into the Kakhovka Reservoir, which is located close to the ZNPP and Energodar, it will then make its way into the Dnieper and go downstream. The problem is that further down the Dnieper is the North Crimean Canal, which was reopened after the start of the special military operation. It is used for agriculture and will need to be sealed immediately in case of an accident.”
One should remember that the Dnieper flows into the Black Sea, an area of powerful cyclones which turn water flows anticlockwise.
“If contaminated water makes it to the Black Sea, the spot, mixed with other water, will move along the Odessa coast and float past Romania and Bulgaria until it reaches the Bosporus and possibly enters the Sea of Marmara. The Black Sea, which survived the Chernobyl disaster fairly easily, will hardly be affected much. And it’s less important for the Russian fishing industry than the eastern and northern seas. The issue is, however, that we don’t know exactly the scale of a possible disaster at the ZNPP,” he said.