Why Ukraine’s Big Nuclear Plant Raises Worries Again

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Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, Europe’s biggest such facility, has become one of the most sensitive flashpoints of the war. Soon after Russian troops invaded Ukraine in February, they captured the plant in the first case of a nuclear station being taken as a spoil of war. Their assault sparked a fire at the complex, though the damage was limited. Since July, shelling aimed at the plant, which Russia and Ukraine blame on each other, has increased to become a near-daily occurrence. Both sides have an interest in stressing the dangers. Still, the United Nations’ atomic watchdog says the plant’s physical integrity has been violated and the potential for a nuclear catastrophe is real.

1. What is Zaporizhzhia?

Construction on the plant began in 1981 — five years before the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear plant about 500 kilometers (310 miles) away — when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. A sixth reactor was added in 1995, after Ukraine gained its independence from Moscow. Located on the Kakhovka Reservoir on the Dnieper River, the plant has a total capacity of 5.7 gigawatts, enough to power more than 4 million homes. Owned by Energoatom, Ukraine’s national nuclear operator, it’s designed to provide a fifth of Ukraine’s electricity needs. It originally relied on Russia for the uranium that fuels its reactors, but today four of the six units use fuel from the US-based Westinghouse Electric Co. After Russian forces seized the site in early March, Moscow sent engineers from Rosatom, the state- owned nuclear power company, to supervise operations using the existing Ukrainian technicians.

2. What are Russia’s objectives?

A nuclear plant is valuable war booty. The complex would cost more than $40 billion to build today. Though power is still flowing to Ukrainian consumers, according to grid operator Ukrenergo, Russian engineers have been laying plans to connect the plant to Russia’s power grid and to charge the Ukraine government for whatever output would remain for Ukraine. In addition, European intelligence officials say that Russia is likely using the plant to shield troops and equipment, anticipating that the facility’s sensitivity protects it from major attacks. Russia has used the wider area to rest its forces at night and has launched long-range artillery attacks from adjacent regions, the officials said. Ukraine has circulated photographs showing Russian armored personnel carriers near Zaporizhzhia’s critical infrastructure.

3. How has fighting impacted the plant?

Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency and a member of a team of inspectors who arrived at Zaporizhzhia Aug. 31, said it was “obvious that the plant and the physical integrity of the plant has been violated several times.” During two days of shelling around the facility in early August, shells landed near spent nuclear fuel that was in storage and wounded a Zaporizhzhia worker, according to Energoatom. Ukraine and Russia blamed each other for the shelling, which prompted Grossi to say there was a “very real risk of a nuclear disaster.”

Suriya Jayanti, a former US State Department official who advised policy makers on Ukraine’s energy supply, says Zaporizhzhia “can take a decent amount of abuse.” Unlike the reactors at Chernobyl — one of which exploded, contaminating some 150,000 square kilometers in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine with radioactive fallout — those at Zaporizhzhia are surrounded by concrete and steel containment structures designed to stop the release of radiation. There are still dangers, however:

• Keeping the reactors cool requires a constant flow of electricity; a power cut could trigger a so-called meltdown, where, in the worse case, the reactor’s fuel gets so hot it breaches containment walls and is released to the outer environment. This is what happened at the Fukushima nuclear facility in Japan in 2011 after a tsunami damaged the plant’s backup generators.

• Another risk comes from spent fuel ponds, which Zaporizhzhia has in abundance. Were a storage tank to be hit with a bomb or shell, fuel exposed to the air could react and release radioactive particles — with severity depending on the age of the fuel.

5. What interest do the two sides have in stressing the dangers?

The US-based Institute for the Study of War has said Moscow appears to be playing on fears of a nuclear disaster among allies of Ukraine in an effort to degrade their support for the country. For their part, Ukrainian authorities have been eager to leverage nuclear anxieties to press their demand that Russian troops leave. In an address warning of the threat to Zaporizhzhia, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said, “The key thing is that international pressure is needed to force the occupiers to immediately withdraw.”

After their initial inspection, some IAEA inspectors stayed on at the plant as “resident experts,” Grossi said. They’ll remain as neutral observers who can provide assessments of potential risks caused by the war. The presence of impartial monitors could help assign responsibility to attacks.

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