NIKOPOL, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainians are once again worried about the fate of a nuclear power plant in a country that was home to the worst atomic accident in the world in 1986 in Chernobyl – and the alarm only increased on Thursday when the plant operator said the facility had been cut off from the power grid.
The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe, has been occupied by Russian forces since the first days of the war, and continued fighting near the facility has heightened fears of a disaster that could affect neighboring towns in southern Ukraine – or potentially an even wider region.
The plant was cut off from the power grid for the first time on Thursday after fires damaged the only working transmission line, according to Ukraine’s nuclear operator. It was unclear whether the plant had been reconnected. As long as it remains off-grid, it will have to rely on emergency diesel generators to run the cooling systems essential to the safe operation of the reactors.
The clipping underscored concerns about the plant, which the Kyiv government alleges Russia is essentially holding hostage, stockpiling weapons there and launching attacks around it. Moscow, meanwhile, accuses Ukraine of recklessly firing at the facility, located in the town of Enerhodar.
“Anyone who understands nuclear security issues has been shaking for six months,” Mycle Schneider, an independent policy consultant and coordinator of the World Nuclear Industry Status Report, said before the latest incident at the plant.
Ukraine cannot simply shut down its nuclear power plants during the war because it is heavily dependent on them and its 15 reactors in four power plants provide around half of its electricity. Still, an ongoing conflict near a working atomic power plant is troubling to many experts who fear a damaged facility could lead to disaster.
This fear is palpable just across the Dnieper River in Nikopol, where residents have come under almost constant Russian bombardment since July 12, with eight people killed, 850 buildings damaged and more than half of the 100,000 residents fleeing the town.
Liudmyla Shyshkina, a 74-year-old widow who lived near the Zaporizhzhia power plant before her apartment was bombed and her husband was killed, said she believed the Russians were capable of intentionally causing a nuclear disaster.
Fights in early March caused a brief fire in the factory’s training complex that officials say did not release any radiation. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russia’s military actions there amounted to “nuclear blackmail”.
No civilian nuclear power plant is designed for a wartime situation, although the buildings housing Zaporizhzhia’s six reactors are protected by reinforced concrete that could withstand an errant shell, experts say.
The most immediate concern is that an interruption in the supply of electricity – as the sole nuclear operator, Energoatom, reported on Thursday that two remaining reactors at the plant have been disconnected from the grid.
The operator said he could not immediately comment on the operation of the plant’s safety systems, where emergency diesel generators are sometimes unreliable.
External power is essential not only to cool the two reactors still in operation, but also the spent radioactive fuel stored in special facilities on site – and only one of the plant’s four power lines connecting it to the grid is operational.
“If we lose the last one, we’re at the complete mercy of emergency power generators,” said Najmedin Meshkati, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Southern California.
Another concern with nearby fighting is that the pools where spent fuel rods are kept for cooling are also vulnerable to shelling, which could lead to the release of radioactive material.
Kyiv told the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog, that shelling earlier this week damaged transformers at a nearby conventional power plant, disrupting electricity supplies from the Zaporizhzhia power plant for several hours.
The head of the atomic agency, Rafael Mariano Grossi, said Thursday that he hoped to send a mission to the plant within “a few days”.
Negotiations on how the mission would gain access to the factory are complicated but progressing, he told France-24 television after meeting French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris, who pressed Russian President Vladimir Putin during of a phone call last week to allow the UN agency to visit the site.
“Kyiv accepts it. Moscow accepts it. So we have to go,” Grossi said.
At a meeting of the UN Security Council on Tuesday, UN political chief Rosemary DiCarlo called for the withdrawal of all military personnel and equipment from the plant and an agreement on a demilitarized zone around it.
He and Schneider expressed concern that the occupation of the plant by Russian forces is also hampering safety inspections and the replacement of critical parts, and straining the hundreds of Ukrainian employees who operate the facility.
“The likelihood of human error will be multiplied by fatigue,” said Meshkati, who was part of a committee appointed by the US National Academy of Sciences to learn lessons from the 2011 nuclear disaster at the plant. Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan. “Fatigue and stress are unfortunately two big safety factors.”
If an incident at the Zaporizhzhia plant were to release significant amounts of radiation, the extent and location of the contamination would be largely determined by weather conditions, said Paul Dorfman, a nuclear security expert at the University of Sussex who advised the British and Irish. Governments.
The massive earthquake and tsunami that struck the Fukushima power plant destroyed cooling systems, causing three of its reactors to melt down. Much of the contaminated material was carried away by the wind, limiting the damage.
The April 26, 1986 explosion and fire at one of four reactors at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant north of Kyiv sent a cloud of radioactive material across a wide swath of Europe and beyond. As well as fueling anti-nuclear sentiment in many countries, the disaster left deep psychological scars on Ukrainians.
Zaporizhzhia’s reactors are a different design from Chernobyl’s, but unfavorable winds could still spread radioactive contamination in any direction, Dorfman said.
“If something were to go really wrong then we have a large scale radiological disaster that could reach Europe, go all the way to the Middle East and certainly reach Russia, but the biggest contamination would be in the immediate area” , did he declare. .
This is why the Nikopol emergency service has been carrying out radiation measurements every hour since the beginning of the Russian invasion. Before that, it was every four hours.
Jordans reported from Berlin. Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed.
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