The risk of a nuclear accident looms over the Ukrainian plant

New explosions over the weekend at Ukraine’s Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant have once again raised fears of an accident at Europe’s largest nuclear power plant.

Here we look at the situation at the plant in southern Ukraine and the risks associated with a renewed explosion and the pressure placed on staff.

– How is the condition of the plant? –

Moscow took control of the site on March 4 shortly after the invasion began.

Since early August, the situation at the plant has worsened, with Moscow and Kyiv blaming each other for shelling the facility.

Over the weekend, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced dozens of strikes.

“Whoever it is, stop this madness!” This was said by Rafael Grossi, head of the IAEA.

Grossi, who has warned of the possibility of a “nuclear disaster”, has been in talks with Moscow and Kyiv to establish a safety zone around the plant. The UN nuclear watchdog in Vienna has several experts on site.

He described the attacks as “deliberate, targeted” and said the latest shooting came “dangerously close to… key nuclear safety and security systems at the plant… We are talking about meters, not kilometers”.

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Damaged sites include a radioactive waste and storage building, the IAEA said, adding that radiation levels at the site are normal.

– What is the risk of the strikes? –

“A direct impact on the reactors, on the associated facilities, especially the spent fuel area, where the spent fuel is located, could have very serious consequences,” Grossi warned in September.

The containment of each of the six Russian-designed reactors is “quite powerful,” former IAEA official Tariq Rauf told AFP.

He added that after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, “many remedial measures and safety margins” were put in place.

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

The other risk is prolonged power outages.

Typically, the plant’s systems are powered by four 750 kilovolt lines. A nearby thermal plant can provide power through backup lines.

Bomb attacks have repeatedly damaged the lines, requiring repairs by Ukrainian engineers and sometimes forcing the operator, Energoatom of Ukraine, to temporarily resort to generators.

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

– Could we be facing a Fukushima-style scenario? –

Electricity is necessary to run the pumps to ensure the circulation of water and the continuous cooling of the fuel in the core of the core, as well as in the storage pools.

“Prolonged total blackouts would lead to nuclear meltdowns and radioactive releases into the environment,” according to the French Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN).

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

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

Zaporizhzhia’s six reactors are now all shut down. In the event of an accident, “the consequences become less severe” the longer a unit has been stopped, Herviou added.

Before the war, the plant supplied about 20 percent of Ukraine’s electricity.

– What is the risk of staff under stress? –

Petro Kotin, head of Energoatom, told AFP in September that Russian soldiers had tortured the plant’s staff and that at least two had been killed. He has also said that factory workers were kidnapped “regularly”.

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Russian troops have also taken over the plant’s emergency control center, raising questions about how well it would respond to dangerous situations, Herviou said.

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

The IAEA has repeatedly condemned working conditions, calling them “increasingly difficult and stressful” last month, warning that this could also cause a nuclear accident.

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