What happens if the bombings continue at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant?

KYIV, Ukraine – When Russian forces took control of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in early March, a fierce firefight with Ukrainian troops sparked a fire that sparked global alarm over the risks of a nuclear leak. catastrophic radiation.

The fire was quickly extinguished. And although a Russian shell hit Reactor No. 1, its thick walls protected it from damage, the Ukrainian government said at the time.

Now, five months later, repeated bombings inside the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant complex over the past seven days have raised renewed concerns, with Ukrainian and Western officials warning that the attacks increase the risk of nuclear accident.

Each side blames the other for the explosions at the factory.

The Ukrainians have accused the Russians of directing strikes there to cut off energy supplies to other towns and attempt to discredit the Ukrainian military in the eyes of the world. The Russians say it is Ukraine that is bombing.

Both sides would suffer if a meltdown occurred and spread radioactive material.

Ukrainian officials have also expressed growing concern about working conditions at the facility. More than 10,000 Ukrainian workers are tasked with keeping the plant running safely even as Russia has turned it into a military fortress and engaged in what Ukrainian officials say is a campaign of intimidation and harassment.

Rafael M. Grossi, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told a UN Security Council meeting on Thursday that the world faces a “grave hour” as the security of the plant was deteriorating and called for a team of international experts. immediate access to the factory.

Mr Grossi said there was currently “no immediate threat” following the recent shelling, but warned the assessment “could change at any time”.

The United States has called for the creation of a demilitarized zone around the plant, but Russia has given no indication that it would even consider leaving the facility.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, addressing a nation still bearing the scars of the nuclear disaster of the 1986 Chernobyl facility collapse, said the Kremlin was engaging in “open nuclear blackmail” and called the situation at the factory “one of the greatest crimes of the terrorist state.

As global officials warn of the growing risk at the plant, here’s a look at the situation and the most pressing concerns.

The Zaporizhzhia plant occupies a place on the Dnipro River, along the front lines of the war between Russia and Ukraine. The Ukrainian army controls the west bank, while the Russians are entrenched around the factory on the east bank of the river.

For weeks, according to Ukrainian officials, Russian forces have fortified the outside of the plant and used it as a staging ground for attacks on Ukrainian-held territory, believing that Ukrainian forces will not retaliate due to the risk posed by an errant strike. Ukrainian officials said they usually did not retaliate, and when they did they were guided, like a drone.

On August 5, shells hit the complex. The shelling continued last week.

After Thursday’s bombardment, workers at the plant were forced to activate an emergency protection generator, according to a statement from Energoatom, the Ukrainian agency responsible for managing all Ukrainian nuclear power plants. He said the plant was now at risk of operating without proper fire safety standards due to damage to its internal power systems.



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Another round of shelling started a fire in the plant’s nitrogen-oxygen station area, but it was extinguished.

At least one staff member working in the area where dry spent nuclear fuel is stored was injured in another round of shelling.

Although they are designed to withstand a range of hazards – from a plane crashing into the facility to natural disasters – no operating nuclear power plant has ever been in the midst of active combat, and this one- it was not designed with the threat of cruise missiles in mind.

There are several main concerns.

The concrete shell of the site’s six reactors provides strong protection, as it did when Reactor No. 1 was hit in March, officials say. More worrying is the possibility of a power transformer being hit by bombardment, increasing the risk of fire.

Ukrainian officials have accused Russia of hiding dozens of military vehicles containing an unknown amount of munitions in the premises of at least two reactors. If a fire were to break out at the power transformers and the power grid was taken offline, it could cause the plant’s cooling system to fail and lead to a catastrophic meltdown, said Edwin Lyman, a nuclear energy expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists. , a private group in Cambridge, Mass.

He noted that the loss of coolant during the Fukushima accident in Japan in 2011 caused three reactors to melt to some extent from the core.

If cooling is interrupted, Dr. Lyman said, the nuclear fuel could become hot enough to melt within hours. Eventually, it could melt through the reactor’s steel vessel and even the outer containment structure, releasing radioactive material.

According to Ukrainian officials, a shell hit a power transformer in Reactor No. 6 at the same time Reactor No. 1 was hit. It did not explode, according to Ukrainian officials.

Dr Lyman said the threat would diminish in the event of a military strike on the dry spent fuel storage area next to the Zaporizhzhia reactors. While spent fuel can still be dangerously hot for years, it quickly loses much of its radioactivity, making any breach less threatening – even if hit by a shell or missile, the radioactive particles will would spread through the air.

Russian soldiers are detaining workers and subjecting them to brutal interrogations for possible saboteurs, prompting many employees to leave and raising security concerns, according to Ukrainian officials.

“People are being abducted en masse,” Dmytro Orlov, the exiled mayor of nearby Enerhodar, said during a meeting last month with Energoatom officials. “The fate of some of them is unknown. The others are in very difficult conditions: they are tortured and mistreated physically and morally.

A Ukrainian energy official who discussed plant safety issues on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic said at least 100 staff members have been arrested in recent weeks. Some of those released bear the scars of torture and 10 employees are still missing, the official said.

These claims could not be independently confirmed.

Ukrainian officials said the Russians were using the plant as a form of nuclear blackmail and bombed the facility to remind the world that they were in control of what happened there. The strikes, they claim, are being led by officials from Russia’s nuclear agency, Rosatom, who are at the site and have so far been directed to hit things not considered essential to safe operation. of the power plant, such as the sewage system.

Russia can also disrupt the supply of electricity through Ukraine by reducing the flow of energy from the plant to the Ukrainian grid.

“The Russians understand that energy is a huge tool of power,” R. Scott Kemp, professor of nuclear science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told The New York Times when the Russians first took control of the plant. time. “That’s a huge leverage point.”

Imagine that a meltdown occurs and radioactive material spills out of the plant.

Disaster scenarios with nuclear reactors are usually based on local circumstances – how severe the breach is, is groundwater flowing in a specific direction, is the wind blowing, and if so, in which direction and with which force over time, stable or variable?

In terms of power, the six reactors in Zaporizhzhia are about the same size as the Chernobyl reactor, which in 1986 suffered a meltdown and explosions that destroyed the reactor building. In this case, the breach was extremely severe and prevailing winds blew the clouds of radioactive debris primarily into Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. Lesser amounts have been detected in other parts of Europe.

Dr Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists said that although relatively small, the repercussions of a collapse could involve local contamination, mass evacuations, farm shutdowns and billions of dollars in cleanup costs .

William J. Broad and Anna Lukinova contributed reporting.

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