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Reports of bombings of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in Russian-occupied Ukraine have reignited fears of a nuclear disaster, but experts remain confident the risk of a Chernobyl-like cataclysm is low.
The Zaporizhzhia factory, which has been under the control of Moscow troops since March, was hit by several bombardments over the weekend.
Ukraine and Russia have traded blame for the strikes, with Ukraine saying a Russian attack damaged three radiation monitoring detectors and hospitalized a factory worker with injuries from radiation. shrapnel.
News of the strikes quickly sparked international condemnation, with UN Secretary-General António Guterres calling “any attack” on nuclear facilities a “suicide” and the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Mariano Grossi, urging both parties to “show the utmost restraint” to avoid a nuclear catastrophe.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy immediately urged Western countries to hit Russia with new sanctions against its nuclear industry, echoing previous warnings of a Chernobyl-scale disaster.
“The world should not forget Chernobyl and remember that the Zaporizhzhia [nuclear power plant] is the largest in Europe,” he said. “The Chernobyl disaster is an explosion in a reactor, the Zaporizhzhia is six power units.”
But experts say the situation in Zaporizhzhia – where 500 Russian troops and 50 pieces of heavy machinery, including tanks, are stationed, according to Ukraine – does not warrant warnings of a Europe-wide disaster.
The risk of bombardment is limited since the reactors are protected by up to 10 meters of concrete, according to Leon Cizelj, president of the European Nuclear Society. He reasoned that only a barrage of targeted aerial bombardments would be likely to pierce the walls of the reactor.
An attack on spent fuel storage sites, he added, would have a limited effect, as any radioactive material released would only travel about 10 to 20 kilometres.
James Acton, co-director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, agreed that the bombing is not the real risk, instead pointing to the vulnerability of the plant’s cooling systems.
“The good analogy here is Fukushima and not Chernobyl,” he said.
Nuclear power plants are designed with several independent safety systems, including numerous grid connections and backup diesel generators. Zaporizhzhia also uses a spray basin for cooling, which means hot water from inside the plant is sprayed into the outside air to lower its temperature.
These “are actually going to be relatively vulnerable because they have to be in contact with the outside world,” making them potential targets for attack, Acton said.
Both pointed out that even in the worst-case scenario – if the cooling systems fail, resulting in a reactor meltdown – it would only cause severe local damage. Cizelj estimated a radius of 30 kilometers.
“It will be a tragedy for the local population,” he said, although there would be no immediate casualties, but “for us in Europe…it would be a very unimportant event, in terms of consequences for health or anything else in the world”. environment.”
So why do Russia and Ukraine accuse each other of bombing and insist on the risk of catastrophe?
“The idea of a nuclear accident is scary — it will get people’s attention — so it’s a ready-made tool for that purpose,” said John Erath, senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control. and Non-Proliferation, a non-profit organization. .
For Russia, it is a way of “raising the stakes to increase [domestic] concerns … to emphasize the importance of continuing the military operation,” he said.
It could also be a strategy to “play on Western fears of nuclear catastrophe and degrade Western willingness to provide additional military support to Ukraine”, according to an analysis by the Institute for the Study of War published. Monday.
As for Ukraine, the goal is to build “public sympathy” around the captured plant, Erath said.
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