North Rhine-Westphalia: Battle for Zaporizhia Nuclear Power Plant: What we know so far

Status: 28/08/2022 7:44 PM

Ukraine’s war shows its particularly cruel face at the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant: the plant has been bombed for weeks. A nuclear accident would be an international disaster. How dangerous is the situation?

What common sense would actually consider impossible – in Zaporizhia, Ukraine, has been an incredible reality for weeks: Europe’s largest nuclear power plant has been the target of rocket and artillery attacks during the war in Ukraine. From the beginning of August, the plant is bombarded regularly.

On Thursday, one of the four reactors was shut down after a power line was damaged and caught fire. However, technicians were able to restore the connection, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said. The other three were already closed and are still operating. Also on Sunday there were already reports of gunfire and rockets around the power plant.

  • The Zaporizhia nuclear plant is back on the grid
  • After disconnection from the grid: Uncertainty over Zaporizhia nuclear power plant

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Friday that Ukraine and all Europeans are “just one step away from nuclear catastrophe”.

Who is shooting at the nuclear plant?

From a Western perspective, this is unclear until now. Russia and Ukraine have regularly blamed each other since the attacks began. On Saturday, both Ukraine and Russia reported attacks on the facility. The Russian Defense Ministry said 17 Ukrainian shells hit the site. Among others, a nuclear fuel storage building and a spent fuel element dry storage facility were hit. The Ukrainian energy company Energoatom is talking about a bombardment by Russian troops.

Who is responsible for security and business today?

In March, Russian troops seized the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant. Since then, they control the adjacent area on the left bank of the Dnieper, while the Ukrainian army occupies the right bank. The area around Europe’s largest nuclear power plant is currently one of the most contested areas in the Ukraine war.

Since the beginning of the Russian occupation, the nuclear plant has been operated by a remnant group of Ukrainian technicians from the state-owned company Energoatom. According to the New York Times, they are guarded by 500 armed Russian soldiers.

What is the risk of a nuclear accident?

On Sunday, both the Russian Defense Ministry and Energoatom said radioactive contamination in the area of ​​the power plant was “normal” – even after the damage caused by the attacks. The head of the IAEA, Rafael Mariano Grossi, has been warning for weeks of a major disaster. The latest incident at the end of the week proved again the high explosiveness.

  • The operator of the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant sees safety at risk

The destruction of the building is apparently not the only risk: Experts agree that a blackout in the system – as has happened several times in recent days – could have serious consequences. The power supply is “the lifeline of a nuclear power plant, as it has to be cooled even when it is switched off,” says nuclear expert Heinz Smital of Greenpeace.

Still intact: Zaporizhia nuclear power plant

Image: Image Alliance / Photoshot

If, as happened on Friday, a 750,000-volt line is cut, a “very critical situation” could arise, he told ZDF. Although there are emergency diesel generators for such cases, the question is whether they actually work in the current war situation. There is also the human factor: it can be assumed that the remaining Ukrainian personnel at the power plant are under enormous pressure. “You can’t expect them to get everything right.” The conditions for a serious accident due to operator error are real.

Such a malfunction led, for example, to the extremely dangerous nuclear accident in Harrisburg, USA, in 1979, where the core collapsed. For days, technicians battled against an impending explosion at the power plant, and the United States was on the brink of a nuclear disaster.

How does the International Atomic Energy Agency assess the situation?

To be able to assess the situation on the ground with certainty, a team of experts from the IAEA would have to inspect Zaporizhia itself, Grossi said weeks ago. Such an investigation now appears imminent: a team of IAEA experts is due to travel to Zaporizhia in the coming days to inspect the nuclear facility.

A senior official of the government installed by Russia in the Zaporizhia region pledged late last week to ensure the safety of the IAEA team. Ukraine’s energy ministry, on the other hand, says Russia is in the process of putting “artificial” obstacles in the way of the mission.

It is not yet officially known who exactly belongs to this group of experts. According to information from the New York Times, in addition to the Argentine head of the IAEA, Rafael Mariano Grossi, there are 13 other experts from “predominantly neutral countries.” Neither the US nor Great Britain are among them, as Russia would not accept these states because of their support for Ukraine, they say. So far, however, this information about the planned trip has not been confirmed by the IAEA.

Ukrainian nuclear power plant operator Energoatom accused Russia on Saturday of putting pressure on Ukrainian technicians at the plant. They want to avoid providing evidence of crimes committed by the occupation forces and that the Russians are storing military equipment and weapons at the factory.

What are the rumors of torture at the nuclear plant?

In March, Ukraine’s energy minister claimed that workers at the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant were being tortured. Several international human rights groups and the British newspaper “The Telegraph” have now reported that the remaining and escaped employees of the power plant have reported being tortured by Russian security forces. This is to prevent the technicians from speaking to the IAEA team of experts and showing them the allegedly disastrous conditions in Zaporizhia.

Slivyak in conversation with WDR journalist Mathea Schülke

Image: WDR

Russian environmental activist and Alternative Nobel laureate Vladimir Slivyak is also aware of such reports and considers the accusations plausible. Therefore, it expects little from the inspection by the IAEA team. In the WDR interview, Sliviak said Sunday that the psychological strain on the power plant’s staff was enormous. Shifts of up to 16 hours are common, which increases the risk of mistakes and accidents. “I think the situation is very dangerous.”

Chernobyl: The world’s largest nuclear accident in Ukraine

In April 1986, the world’s worst nuclear accident occurred in Chernobyl, Ukraine, in which a reactor exploded. The resulting radioactive plume was measurable as far away as western Europe. Dozens of people at the site died instantly, the WHO estimates a total of 4,000 deaths from the resulting cancer.


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