Fire at Zaporizhia NPP: what is known about the fire
Zaporizhzhia (Ukrainian: Запоріжжя, IPA: [zɐpoˈr⁽ʲ⁾iʒːɐ] (listen)) is a city in south-eastern Ukraine, situated on the banks of the Dnieper. It is the administrative centre of the Zaporizhzhia Oblast (region). Zaporizhzhia has a population of 722,713 as of 2021.
Zaporizhzhia is known for the historic island of Khortytsia; multiple power stations including Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (the largest nuclear power station in Europe), Zaporizhzhia thermal power station and Dnieper Hydroelectric Station and for being an important industrial centre. Steel, aluminium, aircraft engines, automobiles, transformers for substations, and other heavy industrial goods are produced in the region.
What is known about the fire
Status: 03/04/2022 1:02 p.m
The war in Ukraine is now also affecting Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, Zaporizhia. Who controls the site? What are the risks of the situation? Will the Atomic Energy Agency step in? The most important questions.
On Friday night, Russian troops fired on the nuclear power plant in the Ukrainian city of Zaporizhia and took control of it. After a projectile hit a building, a fire broke out on the site, which emergency services were able to put out. The reactor blocks were not affected by the fire and appear to be intact. The Ukrainian authorities asked the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for immediate assistance.
According to the IAEA, two security forces at the nuclear power plant were injured. The state-owned Ukrainian operating company Energoatom spoke of three Ukrainian soldiers killed and two injured.
Reports by the Ukrainian media, which referred to a spokesman for the nuclear power plant, were therefore not confirmed. The spokesman reported that the reactor had also been hit and firefighters had initially not been able to get close to the fire. During a speech that night, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy claimed that Russian tanks were shelling the reactor blocks – this statement was also not true.
How does the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) assess the situation?
IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said at a press conference that a nuclear power plant being captured and occupied by military troops was an unprecedented situation. This creates a “highly fragile and very unstable situation”. But he doesn’t worry about the radiation levels emanating from the power plant. Continuous measurements by the IAEA have so far not shown any increased radiation. Swedish, Chinese and Russian measurement centers also reported this assessment.
What is the situation in Zaporizhia on Friday?
IAEA boss Grossi announced that one is in constant contact with the employees of the power plant in Zaporizhia. Both technical and supervisory staff reported that the situation on site was “tense and challenging” but calm so far.
At the time of the attack, only one of the six reactors on the site was operating at 60 percent capacity, Grossi said. The nuclear power plant and its control room continue to be operated entirely by its Ukrainian employees, but the site is still in the hands of Russian troops. The same applies to the decommissioned Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
IAEA chief Grossi said that given the unprecedented situation, he had contacted both the Ukrainian and Russian sides to meet with them at the site of the decommissioned Chernobyl nuclear power plant. From his point of view, government representatives would have to be sent to such a meeting in order to jointly agree on framework conditions that rule out an increased nuclear risk from the war.
Grossi offered to travel to Zaporizhia and see for himself the safety of the nuclear power plant. In addition, the IAEA is constantly informed about the situation through a series of contacts “on a technical and diplomatic level”.
Are there other reactors in Ukraine where such risk situations are threatening?
There are a total of 15 individual nuclear reactors in Ukraine, nine of which were in regular operation before the fire. In addition to the AWK in Zaporizhia, the largest in Europe, the decommissioned nuclear power plant in Chernobyl is also occupied by Russian troops.
Ukraine’s state-owned nuclear power plant operator Energoatom has concerns that the fighting could cut power to a power plant, forcing its cooling systems to run on less reliable diesel generators – which could lead to malfunctions and a dangerously high dose of radiation. So far, however, such an emergency has not occurred in Ukraine.
Three other nuclear power plants near Rivne, Khmelnytskyi and Mykolaiv are located on territory controlled by Ukraine. Since the occupation of the coalfields in the Donbass by separatists controlled from Russia, Ukraine has also been heavily dependent on nuclear energy – the four nuclear power plants, with a total output of up to 13.8 gigawatts, cover more than half of the electricity requirement. If it loses control of the energy supply, it faces decisive disadvantages in the defensive war against the Kremlin troops.
Are nuclear power plants protected against military attacks?
In principle, protection against military attacks is not part of the requirement profile for nuclear power plants, says nuclear power expert Christoph Pistner from the Öko-Institut Darmstadt on tagesschau24 – that was “never an object of interpretation” . Depending on their age and equipment, nuclear power plants are protected against external influences such as earthquakes or plane crashes on the site, which also offers a certain degree of protection against military conflicts. But this does not provide complete protection.
In the worst case, a “scenario like that in Fukushima” could occur in a nuclear power plant with “long-term failure of the cooling systems and thus heating of the reactor cores and fuel rods to the point of core meltdown and thus also a massive release of radioactivity into the environment”, like Pfistner.
Shutdown systems also continue to pose a risk, as they have to be continuously cooled and managed by trained personnel. This responsibility also rests with the Russian troops once they have taken control of facilities.
As a consequence of the events in the Ukraine, Pfistner expects a debate about adapting or extending safety requirements for nuclear power plants. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, there were discussions about protection against terrorist attacks, after Fukushima about better protection against external influences. Now a frequently expressed fear that nuclear plants can also be the target of military attacks has been confirmed – this has to be discussed.
The Ukrainian leadership warns that in the event of an accident, there is a risk of “six Chernobyls” from a nuclear power plant. Is this comparison apt?
In 1986, one of the reactors at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded in the largest nuclear accident in Europe to date. As a result, thousands of people died from the direct or indirect effects of radiation, a large area was nuclear contaminated, tens of thousands of people in Europe fell ill with thyroid cancer, autoimmune diseases and other consequences.
However, direct historical comparisons are not very appropriate in the current situation, explains expert Anna Veronika Wendland from the Herder Institute for Historical Research on East Central Europe, who wrote her habilitation thesis on the use of nuclear technology in Eastern Europe and did research at the Ukrainian nuclear power plant in Rivne, among other places.
On the one hand, Chernobyl was structurally a graphite reactor: the burning graphite generated great heat, made extinguishing work extremely difficult and caused radioactivity to reach great heights and thus be able to spread further. On the other hand, the accident at that time is not comparable to the threat situation today: At that time, the “reactor core disassembled” which led to an explosion.
The nuclear power plants operated in Ukraine today, on the other hand, are pressurized water reactors: “These are completely different incidents, for example if they are cut off from their power supply or vital systems are damaged by shelling,” says Wendland. Basically, the reactor cores in the Ukrainian nuclear power plants are protected according to high standards and also equipped with a lot of cooling – but they would not withstand a long-term targeted fire, says the expert.
How could Russia want to proceed with the occupied nuclear power plant sites?
According to the expert Wendland, a total of 10,000 employees are needed to operate a nuclear power plant the size of the Zaporizhia power plant – around 25 specialists per shift are employed to keep the reactor running. She thinks it is unlikely that troops could take over the operation of the nuclear power plant or that the Russian leadership could replace the workforce at the operational level with its own people: the technical conditions are too complex for this, so that one is dependent on the specialized Ukrainian employees, so to speak.
According to Wendland’s research experience, the employees of the Ukrainian nuclear power plant are a kind of “close-knit community” with great resistance to stress and loyalty to their work – they would be willing to make great efforts to ensure the regulated, safe continued operation of the power plant.
How does the federal government assess the danger situation?
Chancellor Olaf Scholz reacted with great concern to the Russian attack on the nuclear power plant. Even if the danger of a nuclear disaster “didn’t materialize” there, the fire showed “how dangerous the situation is,” he said. “Nevertheless, we are of course always prepared for a situation in which radioactive elements can escape.”
He was informed about the incident by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy during the night. The federal government then consulted with its partners and arranged for measurements to be able to assess the “risk of radioactive radiation”. Regarding the threat of the use of nuclear weapons hinted at by Russia, the chancellor said: “It is very important that we keep a cool head.”
The Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS) also gave the all-clear: “According to the status of the information available, there is no risk of radiological effects on Germany,” the authority assures. All radiological readings “moved further within the normal range”. The nuclear power plant is almost 1900 kilometers by car from Berlin. According to their own statements, the BfS and the Federal Ministry for the Environment are monitoring the situation and providing information on new developments.
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