A blackout affected the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant amid nearby fires and fighting between Russians and Ukrainians

A man walks near the Dnipro River and the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant on the other side in Nikopol, Ukraine. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka, File) (Evgeniy Maloletka/)

Ukrainians are once again distraught over the fate of a nuclear power plant in a country that was home to the world’s worst atomic accident in 1986 at Chernobyl, and alarm was heightened on Thursday when the plant operator said the facility was no longer working after being cut off from the power grid.

The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe, has been occupied by Russian forces since the first days of the war, and continued fighting near the facility has raised fears of a catastrophe that could hit nearby cities in southern Ukraine, or potentially to a much wider region.

On Thursday, the plant was cut off from the power grid for the first time after fires damaged the only working transmission line. It was not clear if the plant had been reconnected. As long as it remains off the grid, it will have to rely on emergency diesel generators to run the cooling systems that are essential to the safe operation of the reactors.

The court underscored concerns about the plant, which the Kyiv government alleges Russia is essentially holding hostage, storing weapons there and launching attacks around it. Meanwhile, Moscow accuses Ukraine of recklessly firing at the facility, which is located in the city of Enerhodar.

Ukrainian nuclear plant fighting
People look at a house that was destroyed after the Russian shelling of a residential area in Nikopol, Ukraine, on August 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka, File) (Evgeniy Maloletka/)

“Anyone who understands nuclear security issues has been shaking for the last six months”Mycle Schneider, an independent policy consultant and coordinator of the State of the World Nuclear Industry Report, said before the latest incident at the plant.

Ukraine cannot simply shut down its nuclear plants during the war because it relies heavily on them, and its 15 reactors in four stations provide about half of its electricity.. Still, an ongoing conflict near a working atomic plant is worrying to many experts who fear a damaged facility could lead to disaster.

That fear is palpable across the Dnieper River in Nikopol, where residents have been under near-constant Russian shelling since July 12, with eight people killed, 850 buildings damaged and more than half the population of 100,000 fleeing. the city.

Liudmyla Shyshkina, a 74-year-old widow who lived near the Zaporizhzhia plant before her apartment was bombed and her husband killed, said believes that the Russians are capable of intentionally causing a nuclear disaster.

Ukrainian nuclear plant fighting
A Russian soldier protects an area of ​​the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in territory under Russian military control, southeastern Ukraine (AP Photo/File)

Fighting in early March sparked a brief fire at the plant’s training complex that authorities said did not cause the release of radiation. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says Russia’s military actions amount to “nuclear blackmail.”

No civilian nuclear plant is designed for a war situation, though the buildings housing Zaporizhzhia’s six reactors are protected by reinforced concrete that could withstand a wandering shell, experts say.

The more immediate concern is that a power outage, as nuclear power operator Energoatom reported on Thursday, meant two remaining reactors at the plant were taken offline.

The operator said he could not immediately comment on the operation of safety systems at the plant, where standby diesel generators are sometimes unreliable.

Ukrainian nuclear plant fighting
A man collects copper cables from the market that was destroyed after the Russian bombardment in Nikopol, Ukraine (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka, File) (Evgeniy Maloletka/)

External power is essential not only to cool the two reactors that are still in operation, but also the spent radioactive fuel stored in special facilities on the site, and only one of the plant’s four power lines connecting it to the grid has operational status.

“If we lose the last one, we are at the complete mercy of emergency power generators,” said Najmedin Meshkati, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Southern California.

Another concern about close combat is that pools where spent fuel rods are kept for cooling are also vulnerable to bombing, which could lead to the release of radioactive material.

Kyiv told the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog, that shelling earlier this week damaged transformers at a nearby conventional power plant, cutting off electricity supplies to the Zaporizhzhia plant for several hours.

Ukrainian nuclear plant fighting
A Geiger counter shows a rising radiation level in Nikopol, Ukraine, on Aug. 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka, File) (Evgeniy Maloletka/)

The head of the atomic agency, Rafael Mariano Grossi, said on Thursday that he hopes to send a mission to the plant within “days”.

Negotiations on how the mission would access the plant are complicated but moving forward, he said on France-24 television after meeting in Paris with French President Emmanuel Macron, who pressed Russian President Vladimir Putin in a phone call last week. to allow the visit of the UN agency. the place.

“Kyiv accepts it. Moscow accepts it. So we have to go there,” Grossi said.

At a UN Security Council meeting on Tuesday, UN political chief Rosemary DiCarlo called for the withdrawal of all military personnel and equipment from the plant and an agreement on a demilitarized zone around it.

Ukrainian nuclear plant fighting
FILE – Members of the United Nations Security Council hold a procedural vote on whether to allow Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to address the meeting on threats to international peace and security via video link on Thursday. August 2022, at United Nations Headquarters. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File) (Mary Altaffer/)

He and Schneider expressed concern that the occupation of the plant by Russian forces is also hampering safety inspections and the replacement of critical parts, and putting great pressure on hundreds of Ukrainian employees who operate the facility.

“The probability of human error will be multiplied by fatigue”said Meshkati, who was part of a committee appointed by the US National Academy of Sciences to identify lessons from the 2011 nuclear disaster at Japan‘s Fukushima nuclear plant. “Fatigue and stress are unfortunately two big safety factors.”

If an incident at the Zaporizhzhia plant were to release significant amounts of radiation, the scale and location of the contamination would be largely determined by the weather, said Paul Dorfman, a nuclear safety expert at the University of Sussex who has advised researchers. British and Irish. governments

The massive earthquake and tsunami that hit the Fukushima plant destroyed cooling systems causing meltdowns in three of its reactors. Much of the contaminated material was dumped into the sea, which limited the damage.

Ukrainian nuclear plant fighting
FILE – Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addresses the Security Council via video link during a meeting on threats to international peace and security, on August 24, 2022, at the United Nations headquarters. . (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File) (Mary Altaffer/)

The April 26, 1986 explosion and fire at one of the four reactors at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant north of Kyiv sent a cloud of radioactive material across a wide swath of Europe and beyond. In addition to fueling anti-nuclear sentiment in many countries, the disaster left deep psychological scars on Ukrainians.

Zaporizhzhia’s reactors are of a different model than those at Chernobyl, but unfavorable winds could still spread radioactive contamination in any directionDorfman said.

“If something really did go wrong, then we have a large-scale radiological catastrophe that could reach Europe, go as far as the Middle East and certainly could reach Russia, but the most significant contamination would be in the immediate area,” he said. .

That is why the Nikopol emergency services department takes radiation measurements every hour since the Russian invasion began. Before that, it was every four hours.

(with information from AP)


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