Ukraine. Russian occupation of the Zaporizhia Nuclear Power Plant. Is there a risk of a second Chernobyl?

The risk of a nuclear disaster on the scale of that of Chernobyl in the Russian-occupied Zaporizhia nuclear power plant in Enerhodara is unlikely, according to experts cited by the American CNN station. According to them, the greatest risk is associated with a possible failure of the cooling systems, which would lead to the melting of the reactor core. This, they believe, could have an impact at the local level.

The threat of a nuclear disaster accompanies the Russian invasion of Ukraine for many months and concerns have grown recently over the shelling of the Zaporizhia Nuclear Power Plant in Enerhodara. According to the Ukrainian authorities, Russia has created a military base and shooting positions on the premises, and stores weapons there.

Head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Mariano Grossi judged that the situation at the power plant had become alarming and demanded an immediate cessation of hostilities that could threaten the facility. Along with heads of state, he also demanded the admission of international experts to a Russian-controlled power plant to assess the damage.

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The Zaporizhia Nuclear Power Plant is being occupied by Russian soldiers ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO / Reuters / Forum

How big is the risk?

Nuclear energy experts explain that the main threat is in the vicinity of the plant itself and that there is no reason to raise an alarm across Europe. Specialists are particularly sensitive to any comparisons of the current situation to the Chernobyl disaster, a repeat of which, in their opinion, is unlikely, writes the American station.

“It is not very likely that the plant will be damaged. In the very unlikely event that it does, the radiation problem would mainly affect Ukrainians who live nearby” and would not spread to Eastern Europe as it was with Chernobyl, said the president of the European Society The nuclear power plant by Leon Cizelj.

Zaporizhia Nuclear Power Plant in EnerhodaraAbaca / PAP / EPA

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“Using past experience, Fukushima could be a worst-case comparison,” added Cizelj, referring to the 2011 Japanese nuclear power plant accident, which was severe but impacted in a smaller area. In the case of Ukraine, the greatest threat would therefore concern people living in the vicinity of the power plant and its employees.

Zaporizhia Nuclear Power Plant [7.08.2022]Reuters / Planet Labs PBC

Zaporizhia Nuclear Power Plant [13.08.2022]Reuters / Planet Labs PBC

Modern nuclear power plants are very well protected against all kinds of damage, and the Enerhodara plant is no exception, CNN points out. It also has security features that were not available in the Chernobyl power plant.

“The problem is that nuclear power plants are not being designed in war zones and (…) all of these systems can fail,” said James Acton, one of the nuclear policy program directors at the American think tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The power plant has six reactors, two of which are currently in operation. The reactors are protected by steel and a several-meter-long concrete jacket. – Accidental firing is unlikely to destroy it, it would be really unlikely – Cizelj assessed. In his opinion, the risk would be greater in the event of a deliberate attack on the reactor, but then it would require a “very skilled” operation.

“At worst, the fuel could melt”

According to experts, the worst-case scenario would be a failure of the cooling systems, which would lead to the melting of the reactor core. In their view, it would be catastrophic at the local level, but would not have a serious impact on a European scale, writes CNN.

– The main danger here is damage to the systems needed to cool the fuel in the reactor: external power lines, emergency diesel generators, equipment for heat dissipation from the reactor core. In a war, it might not be possible to repair this equipment and take countermeasures. In the worst case, the fuel could melt and spread large amounts of (radioactive) substances into the environment, says Acton.

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An attack on installations in which spent nuclear fuel is stored could also lead to the release of radioactive substances. However, also in such a case, the substances would not travel far, emphasizes CNN.

According to experts, in the event of a core melt, radioactive substances could spread within a radius of 10-20 kilometers from the power plant before ceasing to pose a serious threat to health. “The dilution occurs with distance, and it is soon enough that the impact on the environment and human health is not too severe,” said Cizelj.

The scientist emphasized that the inhabitants of Ukraine under attack by Russia face more immediate threats than the risk of a nuclear disaster. – If you compare it with other threats, the risk is not very great – he concluded.

Main photo source: Abaca / PAP / EPA

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