As the UN nuclear watchdog mission visits the Russian-occupied Ukrainian nuclear power plant, Byline Times speaks to locals and experts on the ground

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky this week called the situation around the largest nuclear power plant in Europe – Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant (ZNPP) – “highly threatening”.

Since 6 March, the ZNPP has been occupied by the Russian military but operated by Ukrainian personnel.

With a total capacity of 6,000 megawatts, the station generates about 40 billion kWh of electricity annually – one-fifth of the total annual electricity production in Ukraine.

In winter, four out of six units of the ZNPP operate at full capacity, with two remaining units undergoing maintenance.

In 2022, due to the gas shortage in Ukraine, all six units of the plant produced electricity. Currently, the need for electricity in Ukraine has diminished due to the closure of many factories and only two units are in operation.

All of the experts Byline Times spoke to agreed that the main risk at the ZNPP is the dry storage of spent radioactive fuel.

In addition to six working power units, the ZNPP operates one dry storage facility for spent nuclear fuel, which is kept in 380 ventilated concrete containers in a designated fenced area. To avoid a disaster, the cooling system of the dry storage must function at all times, with an uninterrupted supply of electricity. 

Nuclear emergency training drill in the city of Zaporizhzhia. Photo: Zarina Zabrisky

The working power units, if cut off from electricity, can also present a grave risk. They need a constant power supply  –  either internal or external  –  to ensure the operation of the cooling, control and other auxiliary systems. Without proper ventilation, the reactor may overheat, which would lead to a radiation leak. 

If all power lines are cut off, the diesel generator could be used to supply electricity to the cooling systems. In the case that the generator runs out of diesel, the cooling system would stop and this would lead to an uncontrolled heat build-up, a meltdown, and a fire that could release and spread radiation from the containment structure into the environment.

Additional risk factors are: the malfunctioning of the fire safety, ventilation and monitoring systems; and personnel’s ability to perform their tasks safely. Intentional damage to the automatic shutdown system could lead to a catastrophe. 

The impact of this would not be as strong as the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, considered the worst such event in the history of nuclear power generation.

As stated by the State Inspection of Nuclear Regulation of Ukraine, a catastrophe at the ZNPP would be comparable to the second most severe nuclear accident at Fukushima, which was caused by an earthquake in Japan in 2011.

The wind would carry a radioactive cloud to Europe, Russia and Belarus, and could lead to the radioactive contamination of large areas of land and pollution of the Dnipro river and the Black Sea – which, in turn, would lead to a humanitarian and environmental crisis.

Some of the illnesses resulting from the leak of radiation could be acute radiation poisoning, cancers and thyroid disorders developing later in life. 

Nuclear emergency training drill in the city of Zaporizhzhia. Photo: Zarina Zabrisky

The era of power plant building around the world began in the 1960s, with many countries joining the race.

France had an atomic bomb but chose the path of developing a large number of reliable and inexpensive nuclear power plants. The USSR was keen on the idea of ​​using nuclear power plants’ spent fuel to produce an atomic bomb.

The enrichment of uranium, produced at military plants, is a very expensive process, and the Soviet leadership entertained the idea of ​ combining the construction of nuclear power plants and the production of atomic bombs.

The USSR bought the French technological patent for the production of nuclear power plants. The construction of about 30 to 40% of nuclear power plants, including the Chernobyl, Smolensk, and Leningrad stations, continued according to the Soviet model.

The Zaporizhzhia, Khmelnytska, and Rivne nuclear power plants were built based on French designs, but the Soviet designers added thicker walls and metal structures so that the nuclear plants could withstand a potential atomic bomb attack.

“The power units are built to withstand a nuclear war,” Gennady Nechaevsky, a former ZNPP engineer who worked on the installation of one of the ZNPP units, told Byline Times. “In the 1980s, my graduation project was the ZNPP-type dome which had to survive a hit by an American F-12 or F-14 aircraft.”

The main goal of the Russian Government is most likely to connect the ZNPP nuclear power plant to the Russian energy system, according to an employee of Zaporizhzhia plant. The Russians at the station already claim that such a step would be “a rescue and liberation” of Ukrainians. 

In the USSR, a single network connected all the plants. The energy from the ZNPP went to the Russian cities of Kursk and Belgorod, while the energy from the Ukrainian Yuzhno-Ukrainian NPP was sent to Crimea. The Soviet network functioned until 2016.

Ukraine, producing more electricity than necessary for its needs, has been selling surpluses to Russia and Europe. In recent years, Ukraine has switched to exporting electricity to Europe – another big step away from the Soviet system. Currently, Russian and Ukrainian energy systems use different frequencies. To transfer the ZNPP to the Russian grid, the plant must first be switched off the United Energy System of Ukraine. 

Russia plans to de-energise the occupied territories where the ZNPP is located and power them from a substation in Crimea, which has been annexed by Russia since 2014. It is understood that it would then aim to connect the ZNPP to the Russian energy system at the needed frequency.

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The moment of de-energising the ZNPP would be the most dangerous, according to Petro Kotin, head of Enerhoatom, a state enterprise operating all four nuclear power stations in Ukraine. Losing electricity at ZNPP could lead to the failure of the cooling systems and damage to both the active zone of the reactor plant and storage. 

If Russian authorities succeed in connecting the annexed Crimea grid to the ZNPP, they will solve the Kremlin’s issues with the electricity supply on the peninsula where the Russian military bases and warehouses are located. Such a switch would also allow the Kremlin to disconnect the Ukrainian consumers from the power supply. A major blackout in Ukraine could lead to mass evacuation and territorial gains for Russia.

The only secure way to shut down the ZNPP completely is currently unavailable, because all radioactive fuel must be first removed from its territory.

Speaking after his meeting with the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s, Secretary-General Rafael Grossi, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that an “immediate and complete demilitarisation of the ZNPP is necessary”.

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