Fears of a major nuclear reactor disaster in the middle of the war in Ukraine took on a frightening possibility on early Friday.
With the world riveted to security camera views of a fire, and fighting, at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, fears of damage to the reactors ricocheted around the globe. Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted that a disaster there “will be 10 times larger than Chornobyl!” By morning, the fire was extinguished, Russian forces had taken control of the plant, and its safety equipment was stable, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. No radiation releases were reported from the facility. But the fear remains.
Grossi also offered to personally travel to Chornobyl (often transliterated from Russian as “Chernobyl”), the 1986 site of the world’s worst nuclear accident, to work out safeguards for the nuclear power facilities in the war-torn nation.
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In the US, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm activated the agency’s Nuclear Incident Response Team, and said the US Department of Defense and other agencies are closely monitoring radiation levels reported from the plant. She later expressed support for the IAEA’s calls to allow Ukrainian operators to continue working at Russian-captured nuclear facilities. The Energy Department team monitored instruments near the plant with IAEA and Ukrainian officials, according to the National Nuclear Security Administration spokesman Gordon Trowbridge, allowing them to report no leaks.
Every nuclear reactor is a balancing act, where fuel rods are carefully kept just close enough together to generate the heat needed to generate electricity, while being continually monitored to prevent overheating, which would melt the fuel. This requires continuous cooling and a highly trained staff. The reactors themselves are covered with a steel shell and a heavy layer of concrete, expressly designed to withstand projectiles and plane crashes, and meant to contain the heat of the fuel melting down in a disaster. The Chornobyl reactors lacked this level of protection, which led to the open-air release of radioactive material.
Ukraine has four operational nuclear facilities, including Zaporizhzhia, according to the IAEA’s Power Reactor Information System database. According to Joshua Pollack of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, there are at least two worrying scenarios that concern experts about nuclear power plants becoming engulfed in war zones:
• While reactors are very tough, their pools, containing used-but-still-hot fuel rods, aren’t. If a cooling pond is damaged and stops working, the water eventually boils off, and these fuel rods will catch on fire, spewing radioactive particles skyward. This was a major concern in the Fukushima disaster.
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• If a reactor shuts down, loses access to outside power, and then loses its backup power, the coolant inside the reactor itself stops flowing. Shortly later, the fuel catches on fire inside the reactor and releases hydrogen gas. “As we learned in Fukushima, this is quite dangerous,” Pollack said. In that disaster, hydrogen explosions blew the roofs off reactor buildings. That led to radioactive gas releases and massive evacuations.
There appear to be at least three explanations for Russian forces attacking Zaporizhzhia at this moment in its week-old invasion of Ukraine, said Melissa Hanham, an open-source intelligence specialist affiliated with the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. The first is simply in the fog of war, the Russian invasion force is taking over every facility in its path, which led to the firefight at the plant. The second is a deliberate bid to control a high-risk site, similar to the takeover of Chornobyl at the outset of the invasion. The IAEA has complained about staff at Chornobyl not having relief in monitoring operations there. A third explanation suggested by Ukrainian officials is that Russia intends to control and cut off electricity to the country as part of its invasion plan.
“If it is under Russian control, you would ask for some confidence-building by allowing the IAEA to have access and regular communication with whoever is running it, presumably Ukrainian staff,” Hanham said.
While shutting down the nuclear reactors in Ukraine now might seem like an obvious first safety step, the trouble is that nuclear power plants can’t turn off reactors like light switches. Cooling systems need to keep operating during a shutdown, as is reportedly occurring in two of the reactors at Zaporizhzhia (three others are already shut down, and one, remarkably, remains in operation). Ukraine’s Radio Svoboda warned that the plant’s staff doesn’t want to “work at gunpoint” and may seek to flee the region to safety with their families.
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As well, Ukraine still needs electricity, and the plants provide a significant fraction of its supply.
A related wartime concern is that backup cooling power generators at those facilities run on diesel, and the Russian military is reportedly running low on fuel. “One hopes they don’t steal that diesel to run tanks,” Rofer said. Presumably, she added, Russian officials should understand that any atmospheric release of radioactive gasses from a stricken nuclear facility in Ukraine would travel into Russia itself, given prevailing winds.
“It really is worth worrying about,” Rofer said. “Even if a disaster was more like Fukushima, that would be a terrible thing to add to an already terrible war.”