On Friday, Russian forces in Ukraine seized Europe’s largest nuclear facility, the Zaporozhye Nuclear Power Plant (also Zaporizhzhia or Zaporizʹka or Saporischschja), after their shelling set the Administration building and other outbuildings on fire.
The State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine said technicians in the Zaporozhye facility, about 342 miles southeast of Kyiv, were still at work, and local authorities confirmed that the fire was extinguished around 6:20 a.m. local time.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said the fire had not affected essential equipment and that Ukraine’s regulator reported no change in surrounding radiation levels. U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm tweeted that the Energy Department has also seen no elevated radiation readings.
“The plant’s reactors are protected by robust containment structures, and the reactors are being safely shut down,” Granholm said.
Ukrainian officials immediately raised the possibility of another disaster echoing the deadly 1986 catastrophe at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in northern Ukraine Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned in a video message that an explosion at the six-reactor, 5,700-megawatt Zaporozhye plant could spell the “end of Europe.”
Just a bit of hyperbole as this could not possibly happen, since Chernobyl itself didn’t do that much damage (see below) and the reactors are about as different as they could be. Chernobyl was an RBMK dual-purpose weapons reactor with no containment structure, with graphite as its moderator, and operated with a positive void coefficient, the combination of which, together with human stupidity and hubris, cause the meltdown and explosion. It was designed to make a lot of plutonium for weapons, thus the graphite.
The Zaporozhye reactors are light pressurized water reactors using water as the moderator, operating with a negative void coefficient, and having a militarily-hardened containment structure over the reactor, referred as a missile shield, that can withstand a direct hit from a 727 airplane or anything short of a bunker-buster.
According to Tony Irwin, Honorary Associate Professor at the Australian National University, who operated nuclear power plants in the UK for three decades, chances of explosion, nuclear meltdown or radioactive release are low at Zaporozhye. PWR reactors are “a lot safer” than the reactors at Chernobyl, In the PWR, the water that keeps the reactor cool is on a separate circuit to the second one, which actually supplies the power to the turbine and the outside.”
“These reactors have back-up emergency cooling systems as well. In addition to the normal reactor cooling, they’ve got a passive system, they’ve got high-pressure injection systems, they’ve got low-pressure injection systems.”
So no Chernobyl likely, although worrisome being surrounded by a Russian army.
The Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov immediately fired back at President Zelensky, blaming Ukraine for the fire at the plant, calling it a plot to discredit Russia.
It also looks like Russia is coercing Ukrainian officials to white wash Russia’s actions, at one point forcing Enerhodar Mayor Dmytro Orlov to put out an awkward video statement on Telegram calling on Ukrainians not to provoke Russian troops in the area and saying that no shots had been fired at civilians. A visibly grimacing Orlov suggested that Russian troops had fired blanks.
IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said Friday at a news conference that shelling did not compromise any of the reactors. “All the safety systems of the six reactors at the plant were not affected at all, and there has been no release of radioactive material. Importantly, the radiation monitoring systems are fully functional as well,” he said.
The SNRIU said Zaporozhye’s six power units remain intact, and at present, no changes in the radiation situation have been registered. Of the six power units at the site, unit 1 had already been down for maintenance, units 2 and 3 had been disconnected from the grid and cool down of the nuclear installations is being carried out. Unit 4 is in operation at 825 MW power. Units 5 and 6 are being cooled down. There were no dead or injured among the power plant staff although some staff had received medical care due to stress.
Russian missiles hit and damaged two radioactive waste-disposal sites in Kyiv, the IAEA reported, although nothing important resulted and no radiological releases occurred.
Which brings up the subject of nuclear safety. As good as these reactors are against terrorists and even plane and missile strikes, there is not much you can do against a sustained assault by the second most powerful army in the world led by ego maniacs. I must believe that Russia doesn’t want to cause nuclear accidents in the Ukraine as Russia itself would as likely be impacted as anyone else, in more ways than one.
That being said, this whole invasion speaks of severe cognitive impairment.
The response to the capture of Zaporozhye and Chernobyl does bring up the fear of nuclear as an issue in its own right. President Zelensky’s warning of the end of Europe is probably not far from the thinking of the Russians as well, and may be one of the reasons the reactors themselves were not targeted. That, plus the fact that Russia wants to control the country’s energy and power infrastructure.
We should be greatly concerned about the fate of these reactors, but the general level of that concern is not warranted by the potential for harm. Chernobyl is the case in point. The only thing coming out of Chernobyl that will kill anyone are bullets from Russian guns.
Many more people have already died from the Russian invasion than ever died from the Chernobyl accident in 1986, and many more people have evacuated and fled than ever did after Chernobyl.
The recent slight increase is radioactivity at Chernobyl since the invasion began is just slightly contaminated dirt and materials being stirred up by trucks and activities associated with the invasion.
The public and elected officials can be forgiven for not understanding the difference between an operating nuclear reactor and one that’s been dead for 35 years.
The 1986 Chernobyl incident happened to Reactor Unit 4 while it was operating. Nuclear chain reactions were ongoing, and the foolish operators and bad design of the reactor caused a meltdown at high temperatures and subsequent explosion with a dramatic release of radioactive materials.
But the present-day Chernobyl has no chain reactions occurring, cannot have any occurring. There are no high temperatures, just residual decay heat that is slowly decreasing as the two actually hot radionuclides, Cs-137 and Sr-90, decay away over the next 200 years. They’ve already been through one of their 30-year half-lives.
The material left from the melted core, and the actual radioactive waste left there, doesn’t generate much heat. About the same as seven old-fashioned 100-watt light bulbs per fuel bundle equivalent. If the waste is tightly enclosed in rock or entombed in cement, that can get pretty hot, enough to boil water, but not enough to melt anything down or cause an explosion.
Even if hit by a missile, the material would only chunk and spread out around the immediate vicinity of Chernobyl, not become airborne to any significant degree or spread over Ukraine or Belarus, let alone Europe.
The actual meltdown in 1986 didn’t even do that.
According to the Chernobyl Forum established by the IAEA in 2003 to provide an authoritative consensus on the impact of the original 1986 meltdown. All health and epidemiological studies (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8) have shown that the long-term mental health effects were the only significant public health consequence of the accident outside of the vicinity of Chernobyl. Not enough radioactive materials, in high enough concentrations, were spread outside the immediate area of Chernobyl to have any lasting health effects.
Europe was not adversely affected by Chernobyl, except psychologically.
Forum members included the IAEA, the United Nations Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs, the United Nations Development Program, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the United Nations Environment Program, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, the World Health Organization, and the World Bank. The governments of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine were also members of the Forum.
As summarized by Dr. William Burchill, former President of the American Nuclear Society, the maximum actual fatalities were:
– 2 immediate, non-radiation deaths
– 28 early fatalities from radiation within 4 months,
– 19 late adult fatalities presumably from radiation over the next 20 years, although this number is within the normal incidence of cancer mortality in this group, which is about 1% per year, and
– 9 late child fatalities presumably from radiation resulting in thyroid cancer.
– 340,000 people were evacuated or resettled after the accident
And this was from an operating nuclear reactor, not the dead thing that comprises Chernobyl today. Comparing these numbers to the several hundred already killed by Russia and the over 1,000,000 fleeing the cities and towns of Ukraine, shows the harm is vastly greater for the present invasion than even the 1986 Chernobyl event itself.
Greater than even six Chernobyl events.
So yes, we need to ensure that Chernobyl and all Ukrainian reactors remain safe.
But the invasion is killing people right now and destroying a democratic society. This is much worse than any nuclear accident could ever be.