Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant loses power for sixth time since war began: Why this is dangerous


The Russia-Ukraine war is heating up. In a fresh attack, Russia launched its biggest aerial barrage in weeks, blasting targets across Ukraine with a diverse array of weapons, including its newest hypersonic missiles.

Volleys of missiles streaked into Kyiv and other cities overnight and in the predawn, killing at least nine people and plunging millions of others into the cold and dark as the attacks hit power infrastructure.

The strikes also hit the vital electricity supply to Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, Europe’s largest atomic energy facility. This attack was the sixth time since the invasion began that the plant went off the grid, causing concern and worry among the United Nations nuclear watchdog. Rafael Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said after the incident, “What are we doing to prevent this [from] happening? We are the IAEA, we are meant to care about nuclear safety. Each time we are rolling a dice. And if we allow this to continue time after time then one day our luck will run out.”

Fortunately, experts of the Ukrainian power company Ukrenergo resumed the power supply of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP). But what happens in a case if power can’t be resumed? What are the dangers of the fighting close to the power plant? We take a look.

Zaporizhzhia under occupation

Located in southeastern Ukraine, Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant is the largest nuclear power plant in Europe and among the 10 largest in the world.

Zaporizhzhia is important to both Ukraine and Russia because it’s a crucial energy supply.

When Russia began the invasion of the war last year, it became the first active nuclear plant in history to continue operations in the midst of a war. Such is the situation that it has been dubbed the most dangerous place on Earth.

In March of last year, Ukrayinska Pravda reported that following a fight close to the site, the plant’s management was told by Russian authorities that the plant now belonged to Rosatom — Russia’s state nuclear power company. As of today, it is operated by Ukrainian staff, under Russian control.

The Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant is the largest nuclear power plant in Europe and among the 10 largest in the world. File image/AFP

Risks at Zaporizhzhia

In August last year, the plant was temporarily cut off from Ukraine’s power grid for the first time in history. Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy had then said that the world had narrowly avoided a radiation incident.

Since then, the plant has been cut off from the grid six times — a worry that the UN nuclear watchdog expressed explicitly on Thursday. Rafael Grossi on Thursday said: “This is the sixth time — let me say it again sixth time — that ZNPP has lost all off-site power and has had to operate in this emergency mode. Let me remind you — this is the largest nuclear power station in Europe. What are we doing? How can we sit here in this room this morning and allow this to happen? This cannot go on.”

Also read: As Vladimir Putin raises nuclear threat, a look at Russia’s nuclear arsenal

Each time the plant is cut off from the grid, it relies on diesel generators, a last line of defence to prevent a meltdown from overheating reactor fuel. Experts worry that if the diesel back-up generators fail it would lead to a loss of coolant. With no electricity to power the pumps around the hot reactor core, the fuel would start to melt. This would cause in a release of radioactive substances to the environment.

There’s also the concern of shelling that is taking place near the plant. Attacks at the complex have sparked concerns about the spectre of nuclear disaster.

Russia has accused Ukraine of shooting at the plant, damaging the plant’s support systems. In August last year, media reports had stated that shellfire had damaged a dry storage facility — where casks of spent nuclear fuel are kept at the plant — as well as radiation monitoring detectors.

Experts state that the walls of the reactors are thick enough to withstand artillery fire, but a direct hit on the spent fuel containers could well lead to the release of radioactive material into the atmosphere.

Experts are of the opinion that shelling is not in fact the real risk to the nuclear plant. Matthew Bunn, the James R Schlesinger professor of the practice of energy, national security, and foreign policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School, told Vox: “The biggest concern is [the] cooling of a nuclear power plant. In general, to avoid an accident at a nuclear power plant, you need to keep the reactor core underwater, and the spent fuel pool underwater, so they’re continuously cooled. That cooling process requires electricity, which now comes from Ukraine’s external power grid. The Fukushima nuclear plant disaster in Japan, for example, occurred because of a tsunami which cut off-site electricity to the plant and destroyed the generators, making it impossible to cool the facility even though the reactor had undergone emergency shutdown.”

When the plant moves to generators it depends on diesel. However, during a war, diesel is a highly sought commodity in any war zone.

Fear of a Fukushima repeat

There have been fears that a power outage at Zaporizhzhia could cause a Fukushima-type meltdown. Edwin Lyman, a physicist and director of Nuclear Power Safety with the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists, told Deutsche Welle that any fallout from a possible accident at the Zaporizhzhia power plant would likely have more in common with the fallout from the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.

However, most experts opine that it wouldn’t be the same. Steven Nesbit, a nuclear engineer and member of the American Nuclear Society’s rapid response taskforce explained that as Zaporizhzhia’s reactors are more modern in design, surrounded by three- to four-foot walls of reinforced concrete, it could help hold in radioactive material.

But, it’s not worth testing out these theories.

With inputs from agencies

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Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant loses power for sixth time since war began: Why this is dangerous
Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant loses power for sixth time since war began: Why this is dangerous
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