With Russian troops taking over the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in Enerhodar, Ukraine, following fierce fighting with Ukrainian forces early Friday, concerns intensified as the largest nuclear power plant in Europe comes under Putin’s control.
Although international nuclear watchdogs have confirmed no radiation was released despite heavy firepower around the compound – including a Russian projectile that hit a training facility near one of the nuclear reactors – the volatile situation in Ukraine remains “very challenging,” the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in a statement issued March 4.
As the world woke up to news of Russian forces laying siege to the nuclear facility, fears of a Chernobyl-level disaster have emerged. The 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident has led to many civilian deaths and the displacement of about 350,000 people.
As someone whose research has focused on the deformation and failure mechanisms of nuclear materials, Western engineering professor Hamid Abdolvand said while an attack on a nuclear power facility was highly disturbing, the Zaporizhzhia facility is just “inherently safer” than Chernobyl.
“The Chernobyl accident involved RBMK Russian-made nuclear reactor… but Zaporizhzhia has VVER (water-water energy reactor) nuclear reactors. These reactors run on water, which means that water cools down the reactor and modulates the reactor. They are inherently a lot safer than the Chernobyl nuclear reactor,” Abdolvand said.
Still, Russia’s hold on this nuclear plant can have significant impact on Ukraine’s energy supply, he added.
“About 50 per cent of energy in Ukraine is being generated by nuclear, and this particular power plant that Russia took over provides 20 per cent of energy in Ukraine. That means a significant fraction of energy produced in Ukraine is now controlled by Russia,” said Abdolvand.
A widespread power outage, for example, can result in further difficulties for the already besieged Ukrainian population.
Ukraine has a total of 15 nuclear reactors, six of which are housed in the Zaporizhzhia power plant. The reactors are designed originally by the Soviet Union (now Rosatom, Russia). “The Russians know how to operate the plant, and hopefully they don’t do anything to harm the people,” Abdolvand said, cautioning, “Russia shares a border with Ukraine and radiation release, if it happens in such scale, will also reach Russia.”
The IAEA has reported that the safety systems of all six nuclear reactors at Zaporizhzhia are intact. Radiation monitoring systems at the site are also fully functional, but the situation continues to be a challenge, the agency said.
“I’m extremely concerned about the situation at the Zaporizhzhia NPP and what happened there during (Thursday) night. Firing shells in the area of a nuclear power plant violates the fundamental principle that the physical integrity of nuclear facilities must be maintained and kept safe at all times,” IAEA director general Rafael Mario Grossi said.
Nuclear safety: The facts
Although nuclear energy generation is never going to be risk-free, nuclear energy production facilities around the world are subject to stringent regulations and international safety standards. Nuclear reactors, including the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, are protected by multiple safety layers designed to withstand significant impact, according to Abdolvand.
Nuclear power is heavily regulated and safety and security are always built into its design, Abdolvand said. Nuclear plants around the world operate based on a “defence-in-depth” approach with multiple safety systems, including a series of physical barriers between the radioactive reactor core and the environment, according to the World Nuclear Association.
Nuclear energy is viewed as a cleaner alternative to fossil fuel, and more reliable than renewable sources like solar and wind. It is the second largest source of low-carbon electricity in the world behind hydropower.
The Chernobyl accident in 1986 and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011, are the two major nuclear reactor accidents in the history of nuclear power.
These two high-profile incidents may have given nuclear power a negative reputation and caused governments to rethink their nuclear power capabilities. Germany, for instance has accelerated the phase-out of its nuclear energy production and is set to shut down all its nuclear plants in 2022.
Russia’s war on Ukraine has also reignited conversations about energy security. Russia is the largest supplier of crude oil, natural gas and fossil fuel to the European Union. Global energy security will ensure continued supply of power to populations, regardless of geopolitical disruptions.
“There have been a lot of research and development and safety regulations in place to make sure that nuclear energy production is always safe and provides clean and low-emission energy for us. It’s just a shame to see what is happening right now in Ukraine,” Abdolvand said.