Russia now controls two of Ukraine’s nuclear facilities, and one facility is currently without power.
The Zaporizhzhya power plant is just north of Crimea and, with six reactors, is the largest nuclear facility in Europe. As 52% of all electricity in Ukraine is provided by nuclear power, losing control of the plants could result in widespread power outages.
A fire began at a Zaporizhzhia facility during the military engagement, but initial reports indicate that the nuclear containment mechanisms remain in place.
“What we understand is that this projectile is a projectile that is coming from the Russian forces. We do not have details about the kind of projectile,” said Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency. “We of course are fortunate that there was no release of radiation and that the integrity of the reactors in themselves was not compromised.”
On March 9, IAEA reported that the Chernobyl facility had lost power due to powerline damage during the fighting.
The IAEA said that this “violates key safety pillar on ensuring uninterrupted power supply,” but also noted that the agency “sees no critical impact on safety.”
However, Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, said that the plant had only 48-hours-worth of fuel for its backup generators. “After that, cooling systems of the storage facility for spent nuclear fuel will stop, making radiation leaks imminent,” he tweeted.
IAEA reported a spike in radiation levels in the Chernobyl exclusion zone but credited this to the disturbance of top-layer soil by heavy equipment and troop movements as the Russian military occupied the area.
Ukraine has requested assistance from the International Atomic Energy Agency in order to secure the rest of its operable nuclear reactors.
The South Ukraine Nuclear Power Plant is near Mykolayiv north of Odessa with three reactors, and Russian troops are nearing this facility. The Rivine and Khmelnitsky power plants are in the far west with four and two reactors, respectively.
“These two incidents highlight the very real risk that facilities with radioactive material will suffer damage during the conflict, with potentially severe consequences for human health and the environment,” said Grossi.
All of this brings swift reminders of the world’s worst nuclear disaster, which happened at Chernobyl’s number four reactor in 1986.
The blast immediately killed over 30 people, forced 135,000 people to be evacuated, turned the city of Pripyat into a ghost town, left countless Ukrainians and Belarusians with health problems for the rest of their lives, and created a radioactive cloud that plagued Europe for months.
Before such concerns are dismissed as hyperbole, one must consider the age and condition of the Ukrainian nuclear power plants. Most of the reactors are based on a 1970-80’s Soviet-era design, which was intended to operate for only 30 years.
In 2012, Energoatom, the government-run energy supplier in Ukraine, announced that the 11 oldest reactors would have their life expectancy extended 20 years. While upgrades have been made to extend the life of these plants, there have been concerns about how effective they will be.
Damage resulting from military action is a concern, but most nuclear facilities are rated to withstand a plane crash. It is more likely that these aging plants will suffer from disrepair and lack of safety protocols due to the confusion of war.
It was reported on Feb. 25 that Russia was holding 92 employees of the Chernobyl power plant hostage in order to continue to follow safety protocols. That is disturbing, as these plants are similar to many in Russia, and the Russian military should have had qualified technicians on site.
In addition to the age of the plants and a question of qualified personnel, plant operations can be complicated by employee’s inability to get to work or fear of traveling in a war zone.
The ongoing conflict will impact maintenance supply lines and make it very difficult to ensure maintenance is completed and proper protocols followed. All of this might lead to an accident, not to mention the possibility of sabotage.
While the reactor housing is able to withstand some damage, they still need to be repaired. Any damage could lead to catastrophe if personnel and supplies are not ready to deploy, which seems unlikely in a war zone.
Regardless of one’s view of Ukrainian-Russian politics, this conflict has global implications. From fuel and crop supply chains to nuclear weapons and energy, the price of Russian aggression will be felt around the world.
Those that think the E.U. and U.S. should “mind their own business” have missed the implications of this conflict. Once Vladimir Putin decided to invade Ukraine, it became everyone’s business.
The wild and reckless manner in which Putin has fought this war has opened the door for a huge environmental disaster that could engulf the world.
This raises questions not only about how to better safeguard nuclear facilities against the whims of authoritarians, but also regarding how to safely, securely and equitably supply energy for the world moving forward.
While the capture of these sites is clearly strategic, Russia needs to provide access to international regulators and western countries to assist in ensuring safety protocols are followed.
No one wants another Chernobyl where Russia waits three days to admit that the unthinkable happened.