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Geopolitics

Yes, Ukraine's Vast Nuclear Power Network Presents Enormous Risks

The shelling near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant has raised concerns, even if there are no initial signs of radiation from this incident. But what about the other plants that are located in the immediate vicinity of the Russian attack path?

 Fire breaks out at Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant

Russia attacks Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant

Daniel Wetzel

-Analysis-

BERLINGesellschaft für Reaktorsicherheit (GRS) is Germany's leading organization in the field of nuclear safety, and its representatives are in direct contact with their counterparts in the energy industry in Ukraine. According to the information provided, nine of Ukraine's 15 power reactors were still on the grid the day before the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant was fired upon in the southeast of the country. The power supply is stable, they say, and the site operators reported "normal operations."

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According to Western experts, Russians had so far spared Ukraine's energy infrastructure — both the nuclear power plants and power grids — in order to have access to it after the invasion.


Yet the shelling of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant may indicate that the goals of the Russian invasion have changed, in the sense that they may no longer consider it an occupation, and will now seek to cause as much damage as possible.

Not comparable to Chernobyl

At the time of the attack early Friday, only three of the six units at the Zaporizhzhia plant were operating normally: units 5 and 6 have been in so-called "cold reserve" since February 25, and unit 1 had been taken offline for repair work. Like the other Ukrainian reactors, the nuclear power plant is not of the same type as the Chernobyl reactor, whose accident in 1986 released large quantities of radioactivity.

According to the British management consultant and nuclear expert Jeremy Gordon, the initial situation in Zaporizhzhia cannot be compared with Chernobyl. Statements that there is a threat of a catastrophe ten times worse than in 1986 are "absolute irresponsible rubbish." For one thing, Chernobyl was built without 'containment' so that radioactive material could escape unhindered. A "stupid design," Gordon said on Twitter.

Currently, he said, there is no ongoing nuclear accident in Zaporizhzhia. But it is crucial that the cooling systems continue to be maintained. The attack on the nuclear power plant is a violation of the UN resolution of 1990, which prohibits attacks on civilian nuclear facilities. According to the UN resolution, the UN Security Council would also have to "act immediately."

Among the most nuclear-dependent nations

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), Ukraine's nuclear power plants cover about half of the country's peacetime electricity consumption, with an annual production of about 75 terawatt hours.

All units are Russian-designed

This makes Ukraine one of the countries with the highest share of nuclear power in the world, along with France and Japan. The lower demand for electricity in Ukraine due to the war — many industrial plants are at a standstill — has contributed to the fact that the supply has not diminished so far.

In Ukraine, a total of 15 reactor units are operated at four sites to generate electricity. All units are Russian-designed pressurized water reactors, according to GRS.

The largest site is the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, located about 250 kilometers southwest of the separatist-controlled Donetsk region. Six VVER-1000 reactors operate there, which began commercial operation between 1985 and 1996.

People visit a deserted radar station near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine

The Chernobyl nuclear power plant witnessed one of the worst nuclear accidents in 1986

Bai Xueqi/Xinhua via ZUMA

Other nuclear plants under threat

Rovno and Khmelnitsky are two other large nuclear power plants in Russia's area of attack, in western Ukraine, not far from the border with Belarus. So far, nothing is known about their immediate risks.

According to GRS, there has already been an explosion near a storage facility for low and intermediate level radioactive waste from medicine, research and industry in the past few days. The automatic radiation monitoring system temporarily failed.

"Elevated radiation levels were not detected by this system or by additional manual measurements performed," the GRS says.

The same apparently applies to a storage facility near Kharkiv, where a transformer was damaged, but "the radiological situation remained stable," according to GRS.

Disconnected from Russia's grid

The former Chernobyl nuclear power plant is already under the control of the Russian army. The plant's remains are enclosed in a huge sarcophagus following the catastrophe in 1986. Over the course of 10 days, large quantities of radioactive material were released into the atmosphere and spread across the northern hemisphere. Europe was particularly affected, with warnings issued against the consumption of contaminated agricultural products.

The Chernobyl nuclear disaster was classified in the highest level 7 of the international reporting scale INES. Today, Chernobyl is home to a wet and dry storage facility for spent nuclear fuel.

The temporary test became permanent

Ukraine's power grid had been disconnected from the Russian interconnected grid last week and has been running in "island mode" since then.

The disconnection from the Russian interconnected power system has been in operation since 2017, and the decoupling on February 23 was still part of a test coordinated with the Russian side, which was to be terminated after three days.

After the start of hostilities, however, the temporary test became permanent.

The Ukrainian power grid operator Ukrenergo is said to have applied to be quickly synchronized with Western European interconnected grid ENTSO-E. This was not scheduled until 2023 and requires further tests, but the European Union said it will fast-track the link to increase the independence of the country's energy system from Russia.

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