Kyiv, Ukraine — When Russian forces took control of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in early March, a bitter exchange of fire with Ukrainian troops sparked a fire that sparked global alarm over the risks of a catastrophic radiation leak.
The fire was quickly extinguished. And although a Russian shell hit reactor #1, its thick walls protected it from damage, the Ukrainian government said at the time.
Now, five months later, repeated shelling at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant complex over the past seven days has raised fresh concerns, with Ukrainian and Western officials warning the attacks increase the risk of a nuclear accident.
Each side blames the other for the explosions at the factory.
The Ukrainians have accused the Russians of cutting off the energy supply to other cities there with strikes and of trying to discredit the Ukrainian military in the world public arena. The Russians say Ukraine is conducting the shelling.
In a meltdown, both sides would suffer and spread radioactive material.
Ukrainian officials have also expressed growing concerns about working conditions at the facility. More than 10,000 Ukrainian employees are tasked with keeping the plant running safely, despite Russia’s turning it into a military stronghold and engaging in a campaign of intimidation and harassment, Ukrainian officials say.
Rafael M. Grossi, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told a UN Security Council meeting on Thursday that the world is facing a “difficult hour” as safety at the plant deteriorated, and urged a team of international experts to enter immediately plant received.
Mr Grossi said there was “no immediate threat” due to the recent shelling for the time being, but warned the assessment “could change at any moment”.
The United States has called for the creation of a demilitarized zone around the facility, but Russia has not indicated it would even consider exiting the facility.
Speaking to a nation still bearing the scars of the nuclear disaster from the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine said the Kremlin was engaging in “blatant nuclear blackmail” and called the situation at the plant “one of the greatest crimes of the terrorist state.”
As global officials warn of the growing risk at the facility, here’s a look at the situation and the most pressing concerns.
The shelling has continued for the past week.
The Zaporizhia plant is located on the Dnipro River on the front line of the war between Russia and Ukraine. The Ukrainian army controls the west bank, while the Russians have entrenched themselves around the plant on the east bank of the river.
Ukrainian officials say Russian forces fortified the outside of the plant for weeks and used it as a base for attacks on Ukrainian-controlled territory, believing Ukrainian forces would not return fire because of the risk of failure. Ukrainian officials said they mostly don’t return fire, and when they do, it’s conducted like a drone.
On August 5, shells hit the complex. The shelling has continued for the past week.
After Thursday’s shelling, workers at the power plant had to activate an emergency generator, according to a statement from Energoatom, the Ukrainian agency responsible for operating all of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants. It said the facility was now at risk of operating without proper fire safety standards due to damage to the internal power systems.
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Another shelling started a fire in the area of the plant’s nitrogen-oxygen station, but it was extinguished.
At least one employee working in the dry spent nuclear fuel storage area was injured in another shelling.
The most pressing concerns center on the risk of a meltdown.
Although they are designed to withstand a range of risks – from a plane crashing into the plant to natural disasters – no operating nuclear power plant has ever been in the midst of active combat, and this one was not designed with the danger of cruise missiles in mind .
There are several main concerns.
The concrete shell of the site’s six reactors offers strong protection, as was the case when reactor No. 1 was hit in March, officials say. Of even greater concern is the possibility of a power transformer being hit by shells, increasing the risk of fire.
Ukrainian officials have accused Russia of hiding dozens of military vehicles with an unknown amount of ammunition at the site of at least two reactors. If a fire were to break out at the power transformers and the power grid shut down, it could result in failure of the plant’s cooling system and a catastrophic meltdown, said Edwin Lyman, nuclear power expert for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a private group in Cambridge, Mass.
He noted that the loss of coolant during the 2011 Fukushima accident in Japan caused three reactors to experience some degree of meltdown.
When cooling is interrupted, Dr. Lyman, the nuclear fuel could get hot enough to melt in a matter of hours. Eventually, it could melt through the steel reactor vessel and even the outer containment structure, releasing radioactive material.
According to Ukrainian officials, a shell hit a power transformer on reactor #6 while hitting reactor #1 at the same time. According to Ukrainian officials, it did not explode.
dr Lyman said that in the event of a military strike on the dry spent fuel storage facility near the Zaporizhia reactors, the threat would decrease. While used fuel can remain dangerously hot for years, it quickly loses much of its radioactivity, making any rupture less threatening—although if hit by a shell or rocket, the radioactive particles would spread into the air.
The workers face difficult conditions.
Russian soldiers are detaining workers and subjecting them to brutal interrogations in search of possible saboteurs, prompting many employees to leave the company and raising safety concerns, Ukrainian officials say.
“People are being kidnapped en masse,” Dmytro Orlov, the exiled mayor of the nearby town of Enerhodar, said at a meeting with Energoatom officials last month. “The whereabouts of some of them are unknown. The rest are in very difficult conditions: they are tortured and physically and morally abused.”
A Ukrainian energy official, who spoke on plant safety issues on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, said at least 100 employees had been arrested in recent weeks. Some of those released bear the scars of torture and 10 staff members are still missing, the official said.
These claims could not be independently verified.
Ukraine says Russia is using nuclear power plant as a bargaining chip.
Ukrainian officials have said the Russians are using the facility as a form of nuclear blackmail and that they shelled the facility to remind the world that they control what happens there. The strikes, they claim, are being led by officials from Russia’s Rosatom nuclear agency, who are on the site and have so far been aimed at hitting things not considered essential to the plant’s safe operation, such as the sewage system.
Russia can also disrupt power supplies across Ukraine by reducing the flow of energy from the facility to the Ukrainian grid.
“The Russians understand that energy is a tremendous tool of power,” R. Scott Kemp, a professor of nuclear science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the New York Times when the Russians first took control of the plant. “It’s a point of enormous leverage.”
How far radioactive material could spread during a meltdown depends on the circumstances.
Let’s imagine there was a meltdown and radioactive material spilled out of the facility.
Disaster scenarios involving nuclear reactors are typically based on local conditions – how bad is the breach, is the groundwater flowing in a certain direction, is the wind blowing and if so, in which direction and with what strength over time, constant or variable?
The six reactors at Zaporizhia are roughly the same size in terms of power as the Chernobyl reactor, which suffered a meltdown and explosions in 1986 that destroyed the reactor building. In this case, the breakthrough was extremely bad and the prevailing winds drove the radioactive debris clouds mainly towards Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. Lower levels have been detected in other parts of Europe.
dr Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists said the impact of a meltdown, even if relatively small, could include local contamination, mass evacuations, plant shutdowns and many billions of dollars in cleanup costs.
William J. Broad and Anna Lukinova contributed to the reporting.