In the midst of a war zone, the largest nuclear power plant in Ukraine poses an ongoing threat of radiation leaks. An errant missile or shell could damage or blow up waste containers, or workers could be prevented from keeping spent fuel rods cool by a protracted power outage, which could eventually release radioactive material.
Zaporizhzhya, in southeastern Ukraine, was annexed by Russia on September 30. Afterward, Putin issued a decree specifically claiming the sprawling, six-reactor plant for the Russian Federation. As part of its campaign to assert control, Russia’s state nuclear energy corporation, Rosatom, has pressed the Zaporizhzhya plant’s hundreds of workers to sign contracts with it. Along with the director general and deputy of the plant, two other upper staff members were also detained and later released by Russian forces earlier this month.
Putin’s claim of ownership was immediately contested by Energoatom, Ukraine’s state nuclear company, and Rafael Grossi, the IAEA’s director general. At a press conference on October 6, Grossi said: “For us, it is obvious that it is a Ukrainian facility owned by Energoatom.”
Zaporizhzhya’s nuclear safety and security protection zone will protect its reactors, nuclear waste, spent fuel pools, energy and cooling systems, and energy and cooling systems, thereby reducing tensions and safety risks. A zone of protection would prevent shelling near the plant and military activities that would affect the power supply system. Moreover, military vehicles must be removed from areas where they could affect security and safety systems, and a proper working environment for operating personnel must be reinstated, with clear lines of responsibilities, so that Ukrainian government officials, not Russian ones, continue to report to them.
Earlier this month, Grossi met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to discuss the issue. In an IAEA statement on October 18, he said, “Agreement is imperative as soon as possible.” Zelensky has said he supports such a zone if it demilitarizes the plant, and Putin told Tass that Russia would talk about all issues related to it.
It is, however, unlikely that Russia will abandon the plant to Ukraine, according to George Moore, a nuclear scientist at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California, who says Ukraine’s call for a “demilitarized” zone will go further than the IAEA’s proposal.
He believes an agreement within a clearly defined perimeter would be more politically feasible. As a result, mortars, missiles, or drones must not be fired in the area. It seems that good sense has not prevailed so far,” Moore says.
The plant remains in danger until Ukraine and Russia reach an agreement. The Union of Concerned Scientists’ global security scientist Ed Lyman, coauthor of Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster, says: “There’s no question: No military operations should take place at the plant or nearby.” Despite this, he stresses, anything could happen in a fog of war, no matter who fires the shots. If the wrong missile or weapon is fired, the situation could be made even more dangerous.
In spite of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Zaporizhzhya, which provides a fifth of Ukraine’s electricity, still had four of its six reactors up and running. One, then two, then three reactors were shut down this summer as a result of the conflict destroying all of the plant’s external power lines.
As a result of Russian shelling of nearby infrastructure, the plant has also suffered three power outages. By switching to backup diesel generators, which have just a couple days’ worth of fuel, operators were able to keep the last reactor, number six, running.
But following a September outage, the operators decided to close all the reactors and put them in “cold shutdown” mode. As a result, the nuclear fission reaction is stopped once the fuel rods are blocked in the reactor. This reduces the need for constant cooling by lowering the temperature of the rods and water in the surrounding cooling pools.
“Cold shutdowns” reduce risks, but they do not remove them. To prevent water from evaporating from spent fuel rod pools, they must remain cool. If it does, the rods will be exposed to air, where they react with it and release radioactive gases. In February, workers at Chernobyl, the former site of the infamous meltdown of 1986, faced a similar challenge. Although dry cask storage offers some protection for nuclear waste stored there, rods remaining in the used fuel pools may be the biggest threat.)
Furthermore, the shutdown has not alleviated all the plant’s dangers. A hydroelectric dam near Zaporizhzhya was supposed to be destroyed by mines, Zelensky claimed last week. François Diaz-Maurin, nuclear affairs researcher at the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, says if the dam is breached, the local water reservoir would be affected, which would be needed for a cooling pond to get rid of waste heat. According to him, it would also result in a humanitarian disaster and eliminate the last major river crossing into and out of Kherson. Zelensky’s claim was rejected by Russian authorities in Kherson.
As well as being invoked in threats regarding dirt bombs, conventional explosives laced with radioactive material that could temporarily contaminate and cut off an area, the plant has also been mentioned in threats involving dirty bombs. Ukrainian and NATO allies rejected the Russian claim as a probable “false flag” on October 23, when Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu claimed that Ukraine was planning to detonate such a bomb on their own soil. Russian officials have, in turn, accused Ukraine of making such a weapon, possibly using nuclear material stored at Zaporizhzhya’s dry fuel storage facility. In an October 27 statement, the IAEA said it had found no illegal nuclear activities at the site.
A ceasefire zone could be created in a war zone by working with international law, Diaz-Maurin says. It is possible for civil infrastructure to become a legitimate military target if it is used for military purposes, but that should not happen to nuclear facilities, he says. In addition to Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine has three other running nuclear power plants that use older Soviet reactor designs and are located further from the front lines.
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Although Zaporizhzhya is currently closed, the damage Russia has done to Ukraine’s power infrastructure threatens to cause another energy crisis. A single reactor might be turned back on as winter approaches. Lyman says there is a risk that has to be balanced. Ukraine and Russia should agree on this, to ensure the plant’s safety. It seems likely that generating power safely would benefit both sides.”