Concerns subsided after Ukrainian authorities announced that the fire had been extinguished, and although the reactor compartment was damaged, the safety of the unit was not affected.
But even though the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant is of a different design than Chernobyl and is protected against fires, nuclear security experts and the International Atomic Energy Agency warn that waging war in and around these facilities presents extreme risks.
One of the main concerns, raised by the Ukrainian nuclear regulator, is that if the fighting interrupts the power supply to the nuclear power plant, it would be forced to use less reliable diesel generators to provide power for back-up to operating cooling systems. A failure of these systems could lead to a disaster similar to that of Japan’s Fukushima power plant, when a massive earthquake and tsunami in 2011 destroyed cooling systems, causing meltdowns at three reactors.
The consequence of this, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said, would be widespread and disastrous.
“If there is an explosion, it’s the end for everyone. The end for Europe. The evacuation of Europe,” he said in a moving speech in the middle of the night , calling on nations to pressure Russian leaders to end fighting near the planet.
“Only urgent action from Europe can stop Russian troops. Don’t let Europe die from a nuclear power plant disaster.”
After taking the strategic port city of Kherson, Russian forces entered territory near Zaporizhzhia and attacked the nearby town of Enerhodar to open a road to the factory on Thursday evening.
It is not immediately clear how the plant was hit, but Enerhodar Mayor Dmytro Orlov said a Russian military column was seen heading towards the nuclear facility and gunfire was heard in the city.
Later Friday, Ukrainian authorities said Russia had taken control of the nuclear power plant.
Plant spokesman Andriy Tuz told Ukrainian television that early Friday morning shells fell directly on the facility and set one of its six reactors on fire.
Initially, firefighters were unable to get near the flames as they were being shot at, Tuz said.
After speaking to Ukrainian authorities on Friday, Rafael Grossi, director general of the IAEA, the UN’s nuclear watchdog, said a building next to the reactors was hit, not a reactor itself. -same.
“All the safety systems of the six reactors at the plant were not affected at all and there was no release of radioactive material,” he said.
“However, as you can imagine, we have been told by the operator and the regulator that the situation understandably continues to be extremely tense and difficult.”
Earlier this week, Grossi had already warned that the IAEA was “gravely concerned” about Russian forces carrying out military operations in such close proximity.
“It is of crucial importance that the armed conflict and activities on the ground around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and any other Ukrainian nuclear facility do not interrupt or endanger the facilities or the people working there and around of them,” he said.
The reactor that was hit was offline, but still contains highly radioactive nuclear fuel. Four of the six other reactors have now been taken out of service, leaving only one in operation.
The plant’s reactors have thick concrete containment domes, which would have shielded them from outside fire from tanks and artillery, said Jon Wolfsthal, who served in the Obama administration as senior control director armaments and non-proliferation in the National Security Council.
At the same time, a fire at a nuclear power plant is never a good thing, he said.
“We don’t want our nuclear plants to be under attack, on fire, and first responders unable to access them,” he said.
Another danger of nuclear facilities are the pools where used fuel rods are kept to be cooled, which are more vulnerable to bombardment and which could cause the release of radioactive materials.
Perhaps the biggest problem, however, is the power supply to the plant, said Najmedin Meshkati, an engineering professor at the University of Southern California who has studied both the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters, raising a concern also expressed by Wolfsthal and others.
The loss of off-site power could force the plant to rely on backup diesel generators, which are highly unreliable and could fail or run out of fuel, causing a power outage that would stop the flow of electricity. water needed to cool the spent fuel pool, he mentioned.
“That’s my biggest – biggest concern,” he said.
David Fletcher, a professor at the University of Sydney in the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, who previously worked at UK Atomic Energy, noted that even shutting down the reactors would not help if the cooling system failed this manner.
“The real concern is not a catastrophic explosion like happened at Chernobyl, but damage to the cooling system that is necessary even when the reactor is shut down,” he said in a statement. “It was this type of damage that led to the Fukushima accident.”
WHAT CONCERNS REMAIN?
Ukraine relies heavily on nuclear power, with 15 reactors in four power plants supplying about half of the country’s electricity.
Following the attack on Zaporizhzhia, US President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and others called for an immediate end to the fighting.
Following a conversation with Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, IAEA Director Grossi called on all parties to “refrain from actions” that could endanger Ukrainian nuclear power plants.
Shmyhal called on Western nations to close the skies over the country’s nuclear power plants.
“It’s a question of the safety of the whole world!” he said in a statement.
Ukraine is also home to the former Chernobyl nuclear power plant, where radioactivity is still leaking, which was taken by Russian forces during the opening of the invasion after a fierce battle with Ukrainian national guards protecting the decommissioned facility. .
In a plea for help from the IAEA earlier this week, Ukrainian officials said Chernobyl personnel were being held by the Russian military without rotation and were exhausted.
Earlier this week, Grossi called on Russia to let Chernobyl personnel “do their jobs safely and efficiently”.
During the weekend fighting, Russian fire also hit a radioactive waste storage facility in Kiev and a similar facility in Kharkiv.
Both contained low-level waste such as that produced for medical purposes, and no radioactive releases were reported, but Grossi said the incidents should serve as a warning.
“Both incidents highlight the risk that facilities containing radioactive material could suffer damage during the armed conflict, with potentially serious consequences,” he said.
James Acton, co-director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the simple key to keeping the facilities safe was to immediately end all military operations around them.
“Under normal circumstances, the likelihood of a reactor losing power and emergency diesel generators being damaged and not repaired properly quickly is very, very low,” Acton said.
“But in a war, all of these different failures that would have to occur for a reactor to be damaged and melt down – the likelihood of all of these failures occurring becomes much more likely than in peacetime.”
Mitsuru Fukuda, a professor at Nihon University in Tokyo and an expert in crisis management and security, said the Zaporizhzhia attack raises broader questions for all countries.
“Many of us did not expect the military of a respected country to take such an outrageous step,” he said. “Now that (Russian President Vladimir) Putin has done so, not only Ukraine but the international community, including Japan, should reassess the risk of having nuclear power plants as potential wartime targets.”
Associated Press writers Lynn Berry and Michael Biesecker in Washington, Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.
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