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It’s Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, and it is in the middle of a war zone.
In the grip of aggressive Russian invaders since March last year, the Zaporizhzhia power plant has become a chess piece in the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine, a prized chip it is unwilling to relinquish.
A Russian serviceman guards an area of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station.Credit: AP
Tensions have persistently flared over the nuclear site in south-eastern Ukraine, which employed 12,000 people and provided one-fifth of the country’s electricity before the war.
Russian occupying forces seized control of the plant – among the 10 biggest nuclear facilities in the world – after a battle in August 2022, during which they repeatedly fired on the plant itself.
State-owned Russian atomic energy agency Rosatom, along with remaining Ukrainian technicians held under duress, continue to operate it. However, none of the six reactors are currently generating electricity. Satellite imagery has shown Russia military equipment stationed around the plant.
For months Ukraine has cited intelligence reports claiming Russia plans to trigger a deliberate release of radiation, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky recently insisting reports showed Russian troops had placed “objects resembling explosives on the roof of several power units” of the plant.
A satellite image shows the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, in Enerhodar, Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine.Credit: Reuters
Russia has lobbed its own accusations, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov claiming Ukraine is planning an attack to sabotage the plant.
Neither side has produced evidence to support their claims.
“We are really in the fog of war, and in the middle of a war that Russia is losing badly,” says Paul Dorfman, associate fellow in the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex Business School.
“Kyiv say they have intelligence, and they have warned for a long time about a potential Russian false-flag operation. Russia seems to be playing its usual game, which is to threaten. It’s difficult to really know what they might or might not do, given that they make so many bad decisions.”
Zaporizhzhia was placed in a cold shutdown last September, meaning the reactor’s temperature is below boiling point, but water must still be pumped through the reactor core to cool the fuel and avoid a nuclear meltdown. Operators have since restarted one reactor in hot shutdown, where the temperature is maintained at a level to produce thermal power for wastewater treatment, as well as air conditioning in control rooms, but not for generating electricity.
The steps taken to shut down most of the plant’s reactors significantly lowered the threat of a meltdown.
Last year, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for the creation of a demilitarised zone at the plant, a call backed by 42 countries, including the United States, Japan, Britain, Turkey and the European Union.
While the UN nuclear watchdog – the International Atomic Energy Agency – has repeatedly warned of potential catastrophe at Zaporizhzhia from military clashes nearby, other nuclear experts are more circumspect.
Eugene Shwageraus, professor of nuclear energy systems engineering at the University of Cambridge, says a Chernobyl-like disaster is “out of the question”.
“The reactors have been shut down. In Chernobyl, the chain reaction was happening during the accident, and it spiralled out of control,” he says. “There’s no pressure difference between inside the reactor vessel and outside the reactor vessel. All components are not stressed.”
Shwageraus says because the reactors are being maintained largely at room temperature, there is no force that could create the kind of spectacular explosion seen during the 1986 Chernobyl incident.
“When reactors operate, they have lots of stored energy, with potential to break through. But in the case of Zaporizhzhia, the reactors are not operating. They’re depressurised … so all that power that tries to break through doesn’t exist.”
The explosion at Ukraine’s Chernobyl nuclear power plant is considered the world’s worst nuclear disaster. It forced the permanent evacuation of an entire city and showered radioactive waste over central Europe, Scandinavia and Britain.
A playground is seen in Pripyat, a ghost city since the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, three kilometres away.Credit: AP
At Zaporizhzhia today, Shwageraus says there is almost certainly no radioactive iodine left in the nuclear material. Iodine-131, the most harmful isotope to human health with strong links to thyroid cancer, has a half-life of eight days, meaning it is unlikely to be present 10 months after the major reactors were shut down. Most radioactive forms of iodine are a byproduct of nuclear fission.
Shwageraus calls recent warnings of potential nuclear disaster by media commentators, politicians and military leaders “irresponsible”, adding that they were “trying to weaponise something that is not there”.
Radiation from Chernobyl has resulted in an ongoing health crisis many years after the explosion.Credit: AP
Dr Mark Wenman, a reader in nuclear materials at Imperial College London, expressed similar views.
“I would want to put people’s minds at ease that, you know, we’re not going to see another Chernobyl …It’s just physically not going to happen,” he says.
“The power station itself is so robust that actually they would struggle to do anything that would lead to any significant consequences for the population around there, and certainly not the population of Europe. It would be very localised to the site.”
Reactor containment buildings at the plant are made from 1.2-metre-thick reinforced concrete, designed to withstand earthquakes and aircraft impact, Wenman adds.
Regardless, Zaporizhia’s emergency services have conducted dress rehearsals, while a local children’s hospital has prepared a decontamination centre with a 14-day supply of food and water.
Experts from the IAEA in June said they had seen no sign of explosives at Zaporizhzhia on their most recent visit, but this month the agency’s director-general Rafael Mariano Grossi said anti-personnel mines had now been detected. The placement of the mines was not directly attributed to the Russians but said experts were told it was in an area controlled by military.
“Having such explosives on the site is inconsistent with the IAEA safety standards and nuclear security guidance and creates additional psychological pressure on plant staff,” Grossi said.
White House officials have said they do not believe a threat is imminent, but they are continuing to monitor conditions. However, the reactor remains beyond the reach of independent scrutiny and will likely remain so for some time.
Dorfman says any request by the regulator for greater access would likely go unanswered. “We are effectively powerless. Russia has complete control of the nuclear power plant … There is nothing that we can do at the moment.”
He says the occupation of a such a plant during a war – the first time this has ever happened – should serve as a warning to all governments about the risk of nuclear energy, especially from a military perspective.
“No nuclear plant in the world is [full] proof against military attack, and the consequences are so great in an increasingly unstable world … whether it’s Iran, Pakistan, India, Israel, these are the other potential targets that bad actors may consider.”
In May, the IAEA outlined concrete principles “essential for averting a catastrophic incident” at the plant: no attack of any kind, no heavy weapons to be stored on site, off-site power to the plant should not be threatened and systems critical to safe operation should be protected from sabotage.
Valeriia Hesse, a Ukrainian non-proliferation and international security expert based in Austria, says there is no political will within the Kremlin to follow the IAEA’s edict.
“Russia likes having this bargaining chip and acting [in an] irrational [way]. It might even be that they blew up the Kakhovka dam to make a statement: ‘We can. Be afraid.’ And [to] make a case that they can do the same with Zaporizhzhia.”
Hesse agrees that a Chernobyl-like explosion is implausible. “Two factors – flaws in reactor design combined with human error – led to the accident at Chernobyl. But [Zaporizhzhia] has a different type of reactor.”
If the plant was still fully operational, Hesse says an accident like that of Japan’s 2011 Fukushima disaster would have been more likely.
Caught up in the chaos of Russia’s protracted occupation are the Ukrainian workers who have been forced to continue working since the site was seized in March last year.
Two workers were beaten to death, 10 were abducted and are still missing, others were taken to basements and held for days, their homes searched as they endured threats to sign employment contracts.
The accounts, gathered in a joint investigation by Europe’s International Labour Organisation and the global union federation IndustriALL, highlight the troubling conditions inside the plant, now entering its 14th month on the front line.
In their joint briefing published last month, labour groups expressed “grave concerns” about civilian casualties, the impact on workers and “irreversible damage” to Ukraine’s infrastructure, economy and labour market.
“The ILO has received reports that those who remain working in the [plant] have been forced to sign employment contracts with the Russian state atomic energy corporation, Rosatom, and to join unions created or controlled by the occupying forces,” the report says.
The workers’ accounts were collected from members of trade unions in Ukraine, as well as other secondary sources, the ILO says.
Since the Nova Kakhovka Dam was destroyed last month, its reservoir – holding about 18 cubic kilometres of water – has drained into the Dnipro River and the Black Sea beyond.
Water from the dam in southern Ukraine was a key source for the Zaporizhzhia plant, essential to the cooling of reactors and spent fuel ponds.
The dam’s collapse triggered a warning from a French nuclear safety organisation in June that the plant’s cooling pond could be in danger, suggesting a drop in the Dnipro’s water level could lead to basin leakage or even to the collapse of the surrounding dyke, due to the pressure in the basin.
Water could still be supplied through other means to protect against a nuclear meltdown; however, experts maintain the risk level remains high.
Ed Lyman, director of nuclear safety at the international Union of Concerned Scientists, believes the situation is fluid and that the plant remains vulnerable to both accidents and attacks.
“While this ongoing crisis should not lead to panic, there is no cause for complacency either,” he argues in a piece published by the union in early July.
Lyman says that if cooling were disrupted to one or more of the reactors, there would be a longer period of time — days instead of hours — for operators to address the problem “before the cooling water in the reactor cores would start to boil away … causing the fuel to overheat and degrade”.
While the cool shutdown status of the plant reduces some safety concerns, Lyman warns “unjustified complacency” could increase the potential for a long-lasting disaster if Kyiv’s warnings are not taken seriously.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Ukraine’s Energy Minister Herman Halushchenko said the destruction of the Kakhovka dam proved “there are no red lines” for Moscow, warranting the alarm raised by Kyiv of an alleged Russian ploy to attack the nuclear plant.
“Of course it’s all connected to the [Ukrainian] counter-offensive operation,” Halushchenko told AP. “And after Kakhovka, the one tool which they still have is Zaporizhzhia.”
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