The threat of a nuclear accident looms over the Ukraine plant



Fresh explosions over the weekend at Ukraine’s Russian-controlled Zaporizhia nuclear power plant have heightened fears of an accident at Europe’s largest nuclear plant.

Here is a look at the state of the factory in southern Ukraine and the risks associated with renewed bombing and pressure on personnel.

– What is the condition of the factory? –

Moscow took control of the site on March 4, shortly after the start of its invasion.

From early August, the situation at the plant had deteriorated as Moscow and Kiev blamed each other for the bombing around the facility.

This weekend, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported about a dozen strikes.

“Whatever, stop this madness!” said the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Grossi.

Grossi, who has warned of a possible “nuclear catastrophe,” is in talks with Moscow and Kiev to set up a security zone around the plant. The International Atomic Energy Agency, based in Vienna, has several experts on site.

Describing the strikes as “deliberate and targeted,” he said the latest strike came “perilously close to…the plant’s key nuclear safety and security systems…we’re talking meters, not kilometers.”

Also read: The United States will “know” if Russia is preparing a nuclear strike

The International Atomic Energy Agency said that among the damaged places was a building for radioactive waste and storage, adding that radiation levels at the site were still normal.

– What are the risks of strikes? –

Grossi warned in September that “the direct impact on the reactors, on the facilities associated with them, and in particular the spent fuel areas, where the spent fuel is located, could have very serious consequences.”

Tariq Raouf, a former official at the International Atomic Energy Agency, told AFP that the containment of each of the six reactors designed by Russia is “fairly strong”.

After the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011, he added, “a lot of remedial measures and backup supplies were put in place.”

“But of course, none of these things are designed to survive war,” he warned.

Another danger is a prolonged power outage.

Typically, plant systems are powered by four 750 kV lines. The adjacent thermal power plant can supply power through backup lines.

The bombing repeatedly damaged the lines, necessitating repairs by Ukrainian engineers, and at times forcing the Ukrainian operator Energoatom to temporarily turn to generators.

The plant has 20 diesel emergency generators, with supplies for about 15 days of operation.

– Can we face a Fukushima-style scenario? –

Electricity is needed to operate the pumps to ensure water circulation and continuous cooling of the fuel in the reactor core, as well as in the storage basins.

According to the French Institute for Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN), “a long-term total loss of electrical supply will lead to an accident of core melting and radioactive emissions into the environment.”

This would be similar to what happened in Fukushima in 2011, but a deadly tsunami knocked emergency generators out of service, causing a “very rapid loss of power,” IRSN’s Karen Herview said.

Moreover, “these are not the same models: the volume inside the containment containers is greater so that any pressure rise is slower,” she told AFP.

All six Zaporizhzhya reactors are currently in shutdown mode. If an accident does occur, Hervieu added, “the consequences will be less severe” the longer the unit is closed.

Before the war began, the plant provided 20 percent of Ukraine’s electricity.

What are the risks for individuals under stress? –

Energoatom chief Pietro Cottin told AFP in September that Russian forces had tortured workers at the nuclear power plant, and that at least two people had been killed. He also said that the factory’s employees were “periodically” kidnapped.

Also read: Reconnecting Ukraine’s nuclear plant to the national grid

Russian forces also took control of the factory’s emergency center, raising questions about how to deal with a critical situation, according to Hervieux.

“This center is necessary so that the Ukrainian teams can monitor the condition of the facilities, take the necessary measures to limit the consequences of any accident, request external reinforcements and alert the population,” Hervio told AFP.

The International Atomic Energy Agency has repeatedly denounced working conditions, describing them as “increasingly difficult and stressful” last month, warning that it could lead to a nuclear accident.

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