Ukraine: Putin ‘could use Zaporizhzhia as a weapon’ says expert
A “severe nuclear accident” is feared at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant according to the UN, after the Kremlin-installed head of the occupied region ordered the evacuation of 18 nearby towns on Friday.
Embroiled in the fighting since the beginning of the war, its last reactor was placed on cold shutdown in September, but each is still loaded with radioactive material meaning the risk of a potentially catastrophic leak remains high.
Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said the situation in the area was becoming “increasingly unpredictable and potentially dangerous” in a statement. A long-awaited Ukrainian counter-offensive in the coming weeks is expected to drive out Moscow’s forces which currently control the region.
He said: “I’m extremely concerned about the very real nuclear safety and security risks facing the plant. We must act now to prevent the threat of a severe nuclear accident and its associated consequences for the population and the environment.”
This comes just days after extremely high water levels in the Kakhovsky reservoir risked busting its dam and flooding the power station on the downstream banks. Europe’s largest power plant is in an extremely precarious position. The parallels with Ukraine’s Chernobyl disaster 37 years ago are as evident as they are terrifying.
Russian troops have held Zaporizhzhia since March 2022
The IAEA’s Rafael Grossi warning of pending disaster in Zaporizhzhia back in September 2022
Nuclear disasters are very rare. But one incident looms large over the minds of those monitoring the situation from within Ukraine and around the world.
In the early hours of April 26, 1986, a reactor exploded at Chernobyl near the northern city of Prypiat on the Dnipro River. Faulty design and a cascade of errors by plant operators led to roughly five percent of its radioactive core spilling out into the environment and being deposited across much of Europe.
The initial explosion and acute radiation syndrome caused the death of 30 of the site’s staff, as well as hundreds more firemen over the ensuing months, while some 350,000 were evacuated from the surrounding area.
While the Chernobyl plant had a capacity of just over 3,500 megawatts, Zaporizhzhia comes in at 5,700 megawatts – more than any other nuclear power station in Europe and the fifth-largest in the world.
The destruction caused by the reactor explosion at Chernobyl
Yevgeny Balitsky, governor of the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia Oblast since its annexation last October, said on social media that “in the past few days, the enemy has stepped up shelling of settlements close to the front line. I have therefore made a decision to evacuate first of all children and parents, elderly people, disabled people and hospital patients.”
Since Putin’s troops seized the Zaporizhzhia plant in the early days of the invasion, the site’s power has been cut off six times. An external electricity supply is vital to ensure coolant can flow to the reactors, avoiding a meltdown.
The last time this happened, in March, Mr Grossi told the IAEA’s board of governors that “if we allow this to continue time after time then one day our luck will run out.” There are fears that this time may now be upon us.
The number of staff at the plant has declined over the past year, but its management has maintained that levels have remained “sufficient for the safe operation of the plant.”
Following the Russian evacuation of Enerhodar – where most of the workforce lives – site director Yuri Chernichuk publicly stated that his crews were staying put and doing everything necessary to guarantee the station’s safety and security. Mr Grossi said there was “deep concern about the increasingly tense, stressful, and challenging conditions for personnel and their families.”
Map of nuclear power stations in Ukraine
Thankfully, most experts agree that an accident with as devastating consequences as Chernobyl is unlikely. This is mainly due to the fact that Zaporizhzhia is far better designed.
Unlike the RBMK-1000 reactors used in Chernobyl, Zaporizhzhia – built about 10 years later in the early Eighties – employs more modern pressurized water reactors, which require far less volatile uranium in the core to run.
Its safety features are also vastly superior. The reactor is surrounded by a steel-reinforced concrete outer containment unit as well as an 8-inch-thick steel inner vessel, both of which are resistant to earthquakes and explosions. In the event of an emergency, the reactors also shut down automatically.
Chernobyl’s graphite moderators, on the other hand, caught fire and burned for 10 days, the resulting smoke cloud responsible for much of the radiation that found its way into the atmosphere.
Despite these structural improvements and vastly enhanced security procedures put in place since the Soviet era, danger lies in the fact that no nuclear facility has ever faced a military strike.
If a missile were to take out one of the plant’s backup diesel generators while its grid power was cut, the situation would quickly become critical. The International Nuclear Event Scale has registered just two incidents of maximum severity in its history: Chernobyl and Japan’s Fukushima disaster in 2011, which occurred because the tsunami took out its backup generators.
Robin Grimes, materials physics professor at Imperial College London, claimed direct shelling of the exterior of a reactor may still prove deadly. Although an explosion like Chernobyl is unlikely, he said large quantities of toxic material could still be unleashed.
The Kamianka-Dniprovska district in which the plant sits has some 40,000 residents. Less than 10 miles away, just across the Dnipro is the city of Nikopol, home to 100,000 people. All would have to abandon their homes if a 30-kilometre Exclusion Zone like Chernobyl’s was to be put in place.