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What’s happening with Ukrainian Nuclear Power Plants, part 2: an update on Zaporizhzhia NPP, consequences of a nuclear disaster

In our previous article, we outlined the general situation of Ukraine’s nuclear energy network. We provided an update on the actions of Russian aggressors in the Chornobyl exclusion zone and the state of the staff managing the power plant to prevent malfunction and disaster. Now, we’d like to give an update on the largest nuclear plant in Ukraine, the Zaporizhzhia NPP. We’ll also explain the possible consequences of a nuclear disaster and what can be done to prevent it.

Zaporizhzhia NPP: the current situation

As if the attempts to repeat the Chornobyl disaster were not enough, Russian troops invaded Zaporizhzhia NPP and the city of Enerhodar on 4 March 2022. The power plant remains under the control of Russian military units. We are observing Nuclear Terrorism, at a scale never before seen in world history. Shelling of nuclear containment infrastructure is an untold atrocity, since none of the NPPs were designed to withstand conditions of war or direct military attacks. Considering that six of its reactors have been active over the years, and 2 out of 6 are currently operating, Zaporizhzhia NPP raises even greater concerns than Chornobyl.

As of March 23, 2022, Zaporizhzhia NPP and the city of Enerhodar have been under the control of Russian military formations for 19 days.Currently, the station has around 50 units of enemy equipment and many Russian soldiers, explosives, and weapons. The occupiers continue to detonate shells and mines near the station (those that were used in initial shelling of the NPP but did not explode). The explosions are heard far outside of the NPP site:

“Shelling resulting in severe fires at the Zaporizhzhia NPP would affect not only the nearby area but surrounding countries. We know from history that the Chornobyl accident led to the spread of [nuclear] contamination to many countries and regions. For example, the radioactive activity in my hometown in Sweden was 200 times higher than in Chornobyl, even though it’s located 1,400 km away,” – says Lembit Sihver, founder and CTO of the Cosmic Shielding Corporation in the USA. 

According to the Ukrainian state nuclear energy company EnergoAtom, the Russian military has created a minefield on the shore of the Kakhovske water reservoir bordering the NPP. As a result, explosives were installed directly next to the site, making it impossible for Ukrainians to retake the facility due to concerns of nuclear safety.

Later, Andriy Yusov, the representative of the press service of the Main Intelligence Department of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, reported that the department also had confirmed information about the mining of the ZNPP power units by Russian troops.

In early August 2022, Russians declared their willingness to blow up the mined ZNPP. “There will be either Russian land or a scorched desert here,” – stated Valerii Vasyliev, the head of the Radiation, Chemical, and Biological Defense Troops of the Russian Armed Forces, who commands the ZNPP garrison. Vasyliev also said that all the important facilities of the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant were mined, and they are ready to fulfill the brutal order if one comes, as the plant “has to be Russian or no one’s.”

It complicates further operations for the NPP staff. All six power units of Zaporizhzhia NPP are supported by Ukrainian personnel, which can be rotated. Due to the blockade of Enerhodar, there are problems with fuel, food, and essential medicine in the city. The psychological state of NPP employees and city residents is under serious strain due to the threat of military violence.

Formally, the occupiers do not interfere in the work of nuclear power plants, but the staff is forced to align all technical decisions with the commander of the invaders. Moreover, the uninvited and unwelcome representatives of the State Atomic Energy Corporation of the Russian Federation “Rosatom” are still present at the ZNPP site. Their purpose and plans are currently unknown.

Ukraine has made no requests for advisory, technical or other assistance from the Russian Federation. The presence of these persons on the territory of ZNPP is illegal and in no way related to the provision of nuclear safety.

Zaporizhzhia NPP is staffed with highly qualified Ukrainian personnel to ensure safe operation. On the contrary, the uncontrolled presence of outsiders, including Russian nuclear experts, at the ZNPP site poses a direct threat to the safety of the facility, personnel, population, and environment.

“There is no oversight from the nuclear regulators. They cannot monitor what’s happening directly. We can also observe the movements of the Russian army toward Yuzhnoukrainsk NPP with the possibility of a similar scenario taking place if they break through. The nightmare, however, is a prospective battle near Rivne NPP, where two of four reactors are of the older design with no containment and are far more vulnerable,” – says Jan Haverkamp, senior expert on nuclear energy and energy policy, Greenpeace.

The Russian military tried to seize the Yuzhnoukrainsk nuclear power plant after breaking into Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, but the Ukrainian military stopped the offensive. The seizure of peaceful nuclear facilities is an act of Nuclear Terrorism. No one in the world has done this before.

What can happen in the case of a nuclear disaster 

Ukrainian nuclear power plants provide approximately half of the state’s electricity, generated across15 nuclear reactors. In the case of a nuclear disaster, however, other countries will suffer greatly.

Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group notes: the European real-time online decision support system for nuclear emergency management (JRODOS) allows nuclear experts to create predictive models of radioactive emissions based on weather forecasts.   

In order to assess the directions and distances of the potential impact of radiation accidents,  experts have modeled the consequences of a severe accident at the WWER-1000 reactor units of Zaporizhzhia NPP and Rivne NPP:

The modeled consequences of a possible nuclear disaster will have the following consequences (based on the JRODOS predictive system):

In case of an accident at the Zaporizhzhia NPP in present weather conditions, the contaminated air will most likely move in the Southeast direction to the Sea of Azov. Within 6-7 hours after the accident, the debris will reach the territory of the Russian Federation and will start gradually spreading in the Southwest direction. 15 hours after the accident, the contamination will reach the Stavropol region and South Caucasus of the Russian Federation. The next day, it is expected that wind direction will change and the remains of radioactive debris may reach the Black Sea shores of Crimea, Turkey, and then – Bulgaria within two days.

What needs to be done to prevent nuclear disaster

The world community must consolidate its forces and do everything to stop Russia’s aggression against Ukrainian strategic infrastructure. This is a threat not only to Ukraine – the Russian army threatens the whole world. The results could be worse than at Fukushima or the Chornobyl nuclear power plant.

According to Minister of Energy of Ukraine, Herman Galushchenko, Ukraine expects clear and immediate actions from the International Atomic Energy Agency regarding the seizure of nuclear power plants by the Russian military.

The solution proposed by Ukraine contains three aspects:

  1. all troops must be withdrawn from all Ukrainian nuclear facilities
  2. a demilitarized zone within a radius of 30 km should be created around these facilities
  3. personnel at nuclear power plants must rotate regularly and work in decent conditions, because these people are responsible for the safety of nuclear power plants.

Greenpeace has made a request to IAEA asking the organization to stop its cooperation with Rosatom. The organization believes that Rosatom is breaking the rules of international nuclear facility security, and provides illegal “consulting” for captured Ukrainian NPPs. The full list of requests include the immediate suspension of Mikhail Chudakov from both his Deputy Director and Head of the Department of Nuclear Energy functions; immediate clarification on what role, if any, Mikhail Chudakov has played in the IAEA response to the nuclear crisis in Ukraine; and full disclosure of communications between the Deputy Director and Rosatom officials, since the start of the war in Ukraine.

On 15 March 2022, the European Technical Safety Organizations Network (ETSON) published their position on the events in Ukraine and the seizure of the Chornobyl and Zaporizhzhia NPPs by the military formations of the Russian Federation:

In line with the principles of the United Nations Charter, the Statute of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and international law, ETSON strongly emphasizes that nuclear facilities devoted to the peaceful use of atoms must not be subjected to any sorts of armed conflicts and that their safety and security, as well as those of respective staff, must be guaranteed at any time… I call on the Russian Federation and its organizations to fully cooperate with the IAEA and to abide with Director-General Grossi´s call to respect the seven pillars for nuclear safety and security in line with his recent initiative.” – says Uwe Stoll, ETSON President. 

Ukraine expresses its sincere gratitude to the ETSON Network for publishing its views, and to its colleagues from LEI and SURO for having the courage to state their position on the impossibility of keeping a Russian representative, the aggressor, and the nuclear terrorist, in ETSON. Ukrainian leaders also urge other members of the Network to join the initiative and exclude the representative of the Russian Federation, Scientific, and Technical Center for Nuclear and Radiation Safety, from ETSON.

Although an agreement on security guarantees for nuclear facilities is in progress between Ukraine and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the organization still has no clear and active position with regard to the acts of terrorism performed by the Russian army. Such a position is key to preventing Russia from causing another nuclear disaster that may affect Europe.