Explanation: What is the disaster risk at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant?

Military activity near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southeastern Ukraine has been of growing concern in recent days, as reports of bombings mount and experts warn that the risks of a serious nuclear accident are very real.

“Any attack on nuclear power plants is… suicidal,” said UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. said last week, when he demanded that inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) be given access to the site.

Moscow and Kyiv have traded blame on the strikes.

Ukrainian officials said last week, 14 people were killed in an attack near the factory which damaged a pumping station and radiation sensors. Russia has accused Kyiv of “nuclear terrorism”.

Why is the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant important?

Located on the Dnipro River, the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant is the largest nuclear complex of its type in Europe and among the 10 largest in the world.

Ease has been under the control of Russian forces since they seized it in March, but it is still operated by technicians from the Ukrainian nuclear company Energoatom.

Energoatom said last week that Russian forces were preparing to link the plant to Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014, and damaged the plant by redirecting its electricity production. Located about 200 kilometers from the Crimean peninsula, the plant has six of Ukraine’s 15 reactors and is capable of supplying electricity to 4 million homes.

What is the situation at the moment?

While the plant has six reactors, only two are currently operating, the Ukrainian Energoatom said earlier this month. The IAEA said it had not been able to visit the plant since the start of the war, but confirmed two reactors are currently connected to the network.

Ukraine has said that three power lines at the facility were damaged and that “the factory operates with only one production line, which is an extremely dangerous way of working”.

Russia has been accused to deploy 500 soldiers and position rocket launchers in the area – using the nuclear power plant as a shield. Recent images released by investigative journalists apparently shows military vehicles circulating inside the complex.

Officials based in Moscow in the Zaporizhzhia region have repeatedly said that Ukrainian forces were responsible for the strikes against the plant.

Vladimir Rogov, member of the pro-Russian regional administration, said Friday that the factory had to reduce its production and that it could be mothballed if the bombings continue.

On the same day, Rogov said a Ukrainian rocket landed 10 meters from the nuclear waste storage, but the plant suffered no critical damage.

On Monday, authorities installed by Russia offers a ceasefire in the vicinity.

What would a nuclear incident look like?

The situation in Zaporizhzhia brought back memories of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Soviet Ukraine in which hundreds of people were killed and injured and radioactive contamination spread across Europe.

Similarly, nuclear energy experts warn that any nuclear incident would affect not only Ukraine, but also neighboring states, including Russia, Moldova, Belarus, Romania and Bulgaria.

Damage to critical infrastructure, including reactors, is possible as a result of the fighting, said Andrei Ozharovsky, a radioactive waste safety specialist at the Russian Social-Ecological Union.

“In the event of an external force – such as an intentional or unintentional missile strike – the primary circuit of the nuclear power plant could be damaged,” he said, adding that such type of damage could affect the pressure vessel of the nuclear power plant. reactor and cause an explosion.

“In the event of an explosion – given that the plant is located near the river – a release of radiation would potentially affect hundreds of kilometers around the plant,” Ozharovsky told the Moscow Times by phone.

However, radiochemical expert Boris Zhuikov said a Chernobyl-scale disaster is unlikely because the plants have two very different types of reactors.

“It’s very difficult to destroy the reactor, even intentionally – it has to be repeatedly hit in the same place, but even then the scale of the disaster would be different,” Zhuikov said.

“The Zaporizhzhia power plant has better protection and there are currently only two reactors in operation – these factors reduce the potential risks. But, of course, a missile strike can lead to a serious accident,” he said. “The magnitude of this accident would depend on many factors – how it would happen, how plant personnel would react, how quickly residents would be evacuated.”

“The question is not whether radioactive [elements] would enter the air and the water. An increase in background radiation for a limited time does not present any danger. The question is what kind of radioactivity and how much radioactivity,” Zhuikov added.

Is there nuclear waste stored in the plant?

Yes – and that poses another risk. Experts say if shelling hits the nuclear waste stored at the Zaporizhzhia plant, it could cause a major leak.

“If missile strikes hit nuclear waste storage, then [nuclear] pollution could spread through air and water,” Ozharovsky said.

Ukraine warned earlier this month that the plant is storing 1,200 tonnes of nuclear fuel, adding that “contamination [in the event of an explosion] could be quite high.

What was the international reaction?

More than 40 countries have called on Russia to withdraw its forces from the plant and allow the UN nuclear watchdog to carry out a verification process.

The IAEA said it received conflicting information from Ukraine and Russia about the condition of the facility, its operations and the damage it suffered.

The international nuclear watchdog has repeatedly said called for both sides to cease all military activity at the site, adding that there is “no immediate threat to nuclear safety” but that the situation “could change at any time”.

“I call on both parties to this armed conflict to cooperate with the IAEA and authorize a mission to the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant as soon as possible,” he added. said IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi last week. “Hurry up.”

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