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Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant perils part of novel challenges regarding nuclear safety


Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant perils part of novel challenges regarding nuclear safety

Lerner, K. Lee. Taking Bearings. August 9, 2022. DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.12852.12168

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has posed novel problems related to nuclear safety for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Western intelligence communities, and media outlets because this is the first time a large scale shooting war has threatened multiple nuclear power plants. Early concerns about perils posed by radioactive materials stored at the damaged and decommissioned Chernobyl nuclear power plant have now turned to fears about evident damage to the Zaporizhzhia (also spelled Zaporizhia) nuclear plant located on the Dnipro river-fed Kakhovka reservoir in a southern area of Ukraine now occupied by Russian forces.

The challenges include sifting sources for misinformation and disinformation.

Petro Kotin, chief of the energy consortium NNEGC Eneroatoam that runs the Zaporizhzhia told Reuters last week that Russian shelling had damaged three lines power lines connecting the plant to the Ukrainian electrical grid. Kotin further speculated that Russia was attempting to sever the plant’s connections to the Ukrainian grid prior in order to potentially connect it to the Russian electrical grid before winter. Prior to the Russian invasion, the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant provided about 20 percent of Ukraine’s electrical needs.

Ukraine and Russia have previously accused each other of shelling the nuclear plant site, the largest in Europe, containing six operational reactors. Three of the six reactors are still producing power. The others have been shut down to maintenance modes the Russian invasion. The plant is still operated by its Ukrainian staff subject to Russian control.

Bellingcat, a Netherlands-based investigative journalism group that specializes in open-source intelligence released geolocated drone video footage released on August 5th showed that shells had hit near cooling ponds and concrete containment facilities for 174 casks of spent uranium fuel that remain highly radioactive. While the reactor building is reinforced with steel sufficient to withstand an airliner crash, the cooling pools and dry storage facilities are not as hardened. Neither may be able to withstand explosive munitions impacts, and so a direct or close hit could scatter radioactive debris around the plant. Such damage would make operations and needed renovations extremely difficult and hazardous. Such damage could also produce a radioactive plume of dust that would rise into the atmosphere. The radioactive dust would be at the mercy of weather patterns and rainfall as to where it eventually settles. Depending on the winds, contaminated areas could reach into Russia and other countries surrounding Ukraine.

There is sufficient radioactive material at Zaporizhzhia that even if only a small percentage of radioactive material escaped into the atmosphere, subsequent rainfall could render hundreds of square kilometers uninhabitable for decades.

Russia claims both prior and recent shelling was done by Ukrainian forces using Western-supplied munitions. In June, Russia invited IAEA inspectors to view the damage and the precautions Russian forces were taking to guard the facility.

Kotin also said that according to Eneroatoam inspection records, the Soviet-era plant needs urgent maintenance and renovations. He called for IAEA inspections but said that Ukraine could not guarantee the safety of inspectors because the facility is currently occupied by Russian troops with heavy vehicles.

IAEA head, Rafael Grossi, also told the Associated Press that the Zaporizhzhia plant was in need of inspection and repairs. Fearing an IAEA visit would legitimize Russia’s control of the place, Ukraine’s state nuclear company had previously declined to invite IAEA inspectors. Grossi says that Russia, Ukraine, and the UN would all need to sign off on inspections as well as offer guarantees of safety to inspectors.

Even without the dangers of shelling, any interruption of electrical power to the plant also poses a hazard to reactors, including the still-hot shut down reactors if the interruption damages Zaporizhzhia cooling equipment or drains the system’s generators and battery reserves. Without constant cooling, even spent fuel rods in cooling pools, can boil off water, overheat and then ignite the rod’s metal cladding. Even shutting the reactors down offers little immediate protection because it can take at least five years before they can be allowed to cool down inside shielded containers. Zaporizhzhia also houses such spent-fuel ventilated dry storage casks manufactured by Sierra Nuclear Corporation (SNC).

The Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant remains one of one of the four operating NPPs in the country and can generate up to 42 billion kWh of electricity. The plant, originally designed by the Russian AtomEnergoproekt, consists of five pressurized water reactor (PWR) units, built and made operational between 1984 and 1989. The 6th unit was commissioned in 1990. Each of the six units consists of a VVER-1000/V-320 reactor that drives a 1.0 MW steam turbine. The first five units were built and made operational between 1984 and 1989. Following a building moratorium in the wake the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and the turmoil surrounding the fall of the Soviet Union, the sixth reactor was connected to the newly independent Ukrainian grid in 1995.

Some of the Soviet PWR reactor units are past or near their  originally designed 30-year lifespan. After the 2011 Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear disaster, however, Units 1 and 2 underwent lifetime extension upgrades to control, monitoring and fire suppression systems. The plant can provide remote monitoring of  conditions within the reactors, turbines, spent nuclear fuel cooling facilities, and the on-site radioactive waste treatment complex.

Prior to Russia’s occupation and annexation of Crimea, a Russian nuclear fuel company (TVE) supplied the plant with enriched uranium fuel. After 2104, Ukraine’ Energoatom negotiated a contract with Westinghouse Electric Company (WEC)for enriched fuel. As part of safety upgrades, WEC has also installed passive hydrogen control systems on reactor units 1 and 2.

Without IAEA inspections assessing the condition of the Zaporizhzhia plant is difficult because both Russia and Ukraine use propaganda and disinformation as an integrated part of their respective war efforts.

The U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW) concluded that Ukrainian reports that  Russian forces had mined and threatened to destroy the Zaporizhzhia plant were “likely false.”  On August 8, Ukraine’s Energoatom posted statements and screenshots on Telegram  taken from the Russian Vkontakte social media group (operated  by Russian outlet Lenta Novosti Zaporizhia) allegedly quoting a Russian major-general vowing that  the Zaporizhzhia plant would either be “either Russian land or a scorched desert.” The posts also claimed that Russian Major General Valery Vasilev, identified as head of the Zaporizhzhia occupation garrison, claimed that the plant had been mined by Russian forces. Both the Russian Ministry of Defense and Vkontakte claim Ukraine’s posts were fake.

The ISW concluded, “Regardless of the origin (or existence) of the original post, the reporting is unreliable. It is indirect and does not claim to cite an official statement or a statement made on any official Russian news or government website.”

Other Russian officials on state–controlled media  have, however,  previously  contributed to nuclear tensions by hinting at the possibility of deliberate damage and/or destruction to nuclear plants and even atomic weapons use that Russian President Vladimir Putin has openly said “should never be unleashed” because such conflicts leave “no winners.”

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