The war in Ukraine is now six months old, and we are no closer to ending the fighting than we were on day one. While body counts and the list of atrocities continue to rise, the dangers posed by this war to the broader region and world appear to be centered around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant this week.
Since mid-August, fighting has intensified around Zaporizhzhia, Europe’s largest nuclear power plant. Artillery and gunfire have hit the plant’s reactors since the war began. Both sides, Ukraine and Russia, blame the other for the increasingly volatile situation. Russia suggested Ukrainian forces had launched “black flag” operations to damage the power plant but make it appear that Russia did it. Ukraine says Russian troops are firing at Ukrainian forces from the plant, using the nuclear plant as a shield. Both sides have accused each other of preparing attacks on the plant.
- Read More: What to Know About Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (Washington Post)
The plant is currently under Russian control but operated by Ukrainian staff. There is growing concern that Russia could disconnect Ukraine’s power grid from the plant, plunging the country into new states of power shortages. Ukraine is second only to France in Europe in its dependence upon nuclear power to meet its electricity needs. In an effort to secure energy independence from Russia, 51% of Ukraine’s energy comes from nuclear power. The country has 15 nuclear reactors, six of these based in Zaporizhzhia. Twenty percent of the country’s electricity comes from Zaporizhzhia and 50% of its nuclear energy.
At the end of last week, families began fleeing the towns around the power plant amid fears of a crisis. Ukrainian men were required to stay behind and fight, but they dispatched their families aboard buses to flee to Germany. The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said, “Any potential damage to Zaporizhzhia is suicide.”
The director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) warned that further escalations of fighting near the plant could lead to a severe nuclear accident with the potential for grave human and environmental consequences. As the IAEA has tried to send experts to the nuclear power plant to assess the risks, Russia and Ukraine have both argued over where the representatives should arrive from, Kyiv or the Crimean peninsula.
The greatest fear is a nuclear meltdown, such as what occurred at Chernobyl in that infamous 1986 nuclear power plant disaster in northern Ukraine. Meltdowns happen when fuel in a reactor is not properly cooled. At that point, uranium in fuel rods can melt and release radiation into the environment. If the power supply fed into Zaporizhzhia is disrupted, the plant could no longer guarantee the reactors’ cooling. Earlier fighting in the war already damaged those power supplies.
Ukraine’s national weather service conducted a simulation last week that concluded a nuclear accident at Zaporizhzhia could lead to the spread of radioactive material across much of Ukraine and possibly other countries as well.
Nuclear power plants are meant to abide by seven pillars of safety:
- Ensuring the plant’s physical safety
- Keeping safety systems full functional
- Maintaining a staff free of undue pressure
- Preserving reliable logistical chains
- Monitoring on-site and off-site radiation
- Sustaining reliable communications with outside regulators
According to t the IAEA, all these safety principles are now being violated at Zaporizhzhia. Calm in the facility is the overarching priority for workers and staff to maintain safety and stability with the nuclear power sources. As the war and fighting inches ever closer to the nuclear plant, however, the situation is moving in the opposite direction. An estimated 500 armed Russian troops now occupy the nuclear plant, while overworked and stressed Ukrainian staff man the reactors and worry about their families outside as the fighting has intensified in the last two weeks.
Earlier this week, the UN Security Council met for the second time in as many weeks to discuss the growing risks at Zaporizhzhia. Representatives from Ukraine and Russia traded accusations toward one another but made no progress in resolving issues on the ground around the nuclear plant.