Russia Nearly Ignites a Nuclear Disaster in Ukraine

Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant

A satellite image shows fires burning at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. Photo by European Union, Copernicus Sentinel-2 imagery via Energoatom Telegram Channel.

Photo by European Union, Copernicus Sentinel-2 imagery via Energoatom Telegram Channel.

KYIV, Ukraine — A few backup diesel generators and some watchful Ukrainian workers may have prevented a radiation disaster at Europe’s largest nuclear power plant on Thursday, Aug. 25.

In a national address that night, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russian shelling completely disconnected the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant from Ukraine’s national power grid for the first time in the plant’s 40-year history. The resulting power outage spurred the Russian-occupied facility’s two functioning reactors to shut down.

The Russian strikes sparked a fire at a nearby coal power station that severed the last remaining power line to the plant, Zelenskyy said, adding that automated systems and workers engaged backup generators and other emergency systems to prevent a “radiation disaster.”

“The world must understand what a threat this is. If the diesel generators hadn’t turned on, if the automation and our staff had not reacted after the blackout, then we would now be forced to overcome the consequences of the radiation accident,” Zelenskyy said in Thursday’s address.

Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant 2

An undated photo of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.

Photo courtesy Energoatom.

Before Thursday, three of the four power lines connecting the plant to Ukraine’s national power grid had already been destroyed since Russia’s full-scale invasion began on Feb. 24. Without electricity to run cooling systems, the plant’s two functioning nuclear reactors could dangerously overheat within about 90 minutes, Petro Kotin, the head of Ukraine’s state-run atomic energy company, Energoatom, told The Guardian.

“If you fail to provide cooling…for one hour and a half, then you will have melting already,” Kotin said, underscoring how the effects of a radiation disaster at the plant in southeastern Ukraine would not likely remain quarantined within Ukrainian territory.

“This situation is very dangerous not only for the plant, for Ukraine, but also for the whole world because you never can say what the weather would be like and what the wind direction [would be],” Kotin said.

Invading Russian forces seized control of the Zaporizhzhia power station and its six nuclear reactors in early March. Prior to the full-scale invasion, the plant supplied about 20% of Ukraine’s overall electricity. Some 500 Russian soldiers remained garrisoned at the site, Ukrainian officials said, while captive Ukrainian workers continued to run the two operational reactors.

“Every minute that Russian troops remain at the nuclear power station, there is a risk of a global radiation catastrophe,” Zelenskyy said in Thursday’s address.

TOPSHOT-UKRAINE-RUSSIA-CONFLICT

A Russian serviceman patrols the territory of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station in Energodar on May 1, 2022. (Editor’s Note: This picture was taken during a media trip organized by the Russian army.) Photo by Andrey Borodulin/AFP/Getty Images.

ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP via Getty Images

Some nuclear watchdogs said Russian shelling could also knock out vital cooling systems needed to safely store spent nuclear fuel. Thomas Moore, a nuclear expert and former senior professional staff member for the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, said a stray shell was not likely to kick-start a nuclear chain reaction at the Zaporizhzhia plant. Yet there’s been a troubling breakdown in basic safety procedures since Russia took control in March, Moore said, raising the risk of some other kind of disaster.

“Detonation of mines around the plant would not cause a reactor to go critical unless damage was to things inside the more protected areas. It would, however, damage what we call the ‘balance of plant’ portions of guards and gates around the facility, making it easier for all kinds of unsafe people and activities to occur there,” Moore told Coffee or Die Magazine.

Energoatom announced on Friday that one power line had been restored to the plant, allowing one reactor to restart and operate at limited output.

According to a Friday statement posted to Energoatom’s Telegram channel, “The nuclear scientists of Zaporizhia [nuclear power plant] are real heroes! They tirelessly and firmly hold on their shoulders the nuclear and radiation safety of Ukraine and entire Europe, and selflessly work so that their native country has life-giving electricity.”

Thursday’s near-disaster underscored the ongoing risk of active combat around a nuclear power plant. With US backing, Kyiv has called for the United Nations and the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency to establish a demilitarized zone at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.

A Russian occupation official blamed Ukraine for the shelling around the Zaporizhzhia plant this week. Even so, some Western analysts said that Russian forces had purposefully raised the specter of a nuclear disaster as part of a gambit to interrupt the lifeline of Western military aid sustaining Ukraine’s frontline forces.

“Russian forces are likely using Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant [...] to play on Western fears of a nuclear disaster in Ukraine, likely in an effort to degrade Western will to provide military support to a Ukrainian counteroffensive,” the Institute for the Study of War, a US think tank, reported Aug. 3.

Some six months after Russia launched its full-scale assault, combat has stalled along a relatively static front line that spans southern and eastern Ukraine. Since March, constant shelling near the Zaporizhzhia power station has spurred worries in the US and across Europe that a radiation incident at the plant could have far-reaching, potentially catastrophic consequences.

“No country should turn a nuclear power plant into an active war zone, and we oppose any Russian efforts to weaponize or divert energy from the plant,” US State Department spokesman Vedant Patel told reporters on Thursday.

On social media, many Ukrainians are now seeking advice about how to prepare for a possible radiation disaster. The most common piece of advice is to buy iodine tablets to protect the thyroid glands.

The Zaporizhzhia plant is located about 270 miles southeast of Kyiv. This correspondent visited three pharmacies in the capital city on Friday — all three locations reported that they’d sold out of iodine in the past 24 hours.

A Ukrainian endocrinologist named Evgenia Rogalskaya posted a short video for her nearly 54,300 Instagram followers on Thursday explaining how to appropriately dose iodine in the event of a radiation disaster.

“There is no need to take anything if there is no accident,” Rogalskaya said.

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Nolan Peterson is a senior editor for Coffee or Die Magazine and the author of Why Soldiers Miss War. A former US Air Force special operations pilot and a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Nolan is now a conflict journalist and author whose adventures have taken him to all seven continents. In addition to his memoirs, Nolan has published two fiction collections. He lives in Kyiv, Ukraine, with his wife, Lilya.
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