Concerns about a potential nuclear disaster from shelling around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant are growing. This week the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released a report advocating for a safety zone around the plant. What is the risk of a nuclear disaster in the Ukrainian city?
The major concern is that radioactivity is being released as a result of damage from shelling around the nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia. Those concerns are justified: While all security systems are currently intact, significant damage has been identified by the IAEA.
The IAEA’s concern is mainly due to the risk of escalation or continued violence in the area around the nuclear power plant.. Hence, in Tuesday’s report, the agency is calling for a security zone, meaning that the warring parties will not camp there, and a ceasefire in the area.
“As long as the battle continues, it is actually very difficult to estimate what the risks are,” says Mark van Bourgondiën of the Authority for Nuclear Safety and Radiation Protection (ANVS). “They do not depend on the usual probability calculations, but on how the battle develops there.”
There are three points that must guarantee the safety of a nuclear power plant: nuclear fission must take place in a controlled manner, the reactors must be able to be properly cooled and radioactive material must always remain inside. If any of these conditions cannot be guaranteed, there is a risk that radioactive particles will end up in the environment.
The first safety condition is probably the least applicable to the current situation in Zaporizhzhia. The splitting of the nuclear atoms (which is necessary to generate electricity) takes place in the most protected part of a nuclear reactor. And that part of the nuclear power plant is currently not threatened by the shelling.
In addition, you can switch off nuclear reactors in emergency situations in various ways, which stops the nuclear fission.
The safety of refrigeration systems is currently the number one concern. These systems are needed to remove excess heat in the nuclear power plant. When the cooling systems stop working, a reactor overheats. In the worst case, radioactive material can be released.
Because cooling systems depend on electricity, a power outage or damage to the power grid can be dangerous. This does not directly lead to a nuclear accident, because emergency solutions are available. For example, diesel generators and batteries can temporarily take over the power supply.
Still, there is cause for concern about the cooling systems at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. The power supply has been severely damaged by shelling in recent months. In the meantime, the plant has also lost connection to the last main connection to the power network, the IAEA reported this weekend.
The plant is currently ‘borrowing’ power from a nearby thermal power plant. But if the shelling intensifies and the emergency solutions also become useless, a nuclear accident is lurking.
And then there is the third condition: the guarantee that radioactive material can never be released. This is mainly due to the construction of the power plant. The requirements for the safety of nuclear power plants today are very strict, and Zaporizhzhia also complies with international IAEA standards. This means that the complex is prepared for severe scenarios, such as natural disasters, explosions or aircraft disasters.
But war is unpredictable and can cause serious damage. At the moment the shelling and shells that have fallen on the site have not yet damaged the nuclear reactors. But, according to Van Bourgondiën, that could just change. “The moment there would be rocket fire, for example. That is why it is of the utmost importance that a safe zone is created around the nuclear power plant and the fighting on the site stops.”
Finally, it is important to keep an eye on the personnel of the exchange. The power station has been in the hands of the Russians since March, but is still operated by Ukrainian personnel. In its report, the IAEA mentions high work pressure and difficult working conditions. Van Bourgondiën: “This increases the chance that people will make mistakes that could have consequences for nuclear safety.”
If it comes to a nuclear disaster, there is little chance that we will notice anything here in the Netherlands. Radioactive particles that would reach the Netherlands have been diluted to such an extent that they no longer pose a health hazard. The regions around Zaporizhzhia (including parts of Russia) in particular would be at risk in the event of a nuclear disaster. Radioactive radiation can lead to serious health problems. Large areas can therefore become uninhabitable, as happened with the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 (also in Ukraine).