Chernobyl or Fukushima? Understanding the Dangers of Zaporizhzhia | Opinion

Europe's largest nuclear power plant, which has been under attack since February, has now shut down all six of its reactors. The Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP), located in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, is now safer, even if it deprives the people the plant served of electricity.

Every day the reactors are shut down the heat and radioactivity decrease making a meltdown less likely. As of this writing, two power lines coming into the plant have been reconnected; two representatives of the International Atomic Energy Agency are now at the plant; and talks are underway to end the shelling of the plant. All this lessens the danger of a radioactive leak but doesn't eliminate it.

There is no danger of an accident like that at Chernobyl in 1986, but a meltdown like that at Fukushima, in Japan, remains possible. The heat from decaying fission products must be removed from the reactor cores by circulating water. The power for the circulation pumps comes from outside the plant, and the power from the grid has been interrupted many times. A nearby coal plant or on-site diesel-powered generators have supplied power during those interruptions. Now that the reactors are shut down, no more fission products are produced, and heat, radioactivity, and danger of a meltdown decrease.

Prepping for Disaster
A Ukrainian Emergency Ministry rescuer assists a woman to put on protective clothing during a nuclear emergency training session for civilians in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv on Sept. 8, 2022. YURIY DYACHYSHYN/AFP via Getty Images

If a meltdown did occur, the large reinforced-concrete reactor buildings are designed to contain it. Shelling could break that containment, although it is rated to survive an airplane crash.

Another danger at the plant is stored fuel that has been used in the reactors. Initially, it is placed in pools with circulating water—power again needed—to keep it cool. As it cools over months, it is loaded into concrete containers. Both pools and concrete containers are present at the site. Bombing of the pools could disperse radioactivity. If releasing radioactive material were Russia's objective, the pools would be the likeliest target.

Russia's occupation of the Ukrainian plant appears to have been part of the initial attempt to gain control of the country. Russian troops occupied the plant in March. Other power plants were also targeted because of their strategic importance. When the plan failed, Russia remained in control of ZNPP. A major objective now seems to be linking it to the Russian electrical grid.

Early in the war, Russian President Vladimir Putin was not shy about reminding the world of his country's nuclear weapons arsenal. His rhetoric did nothing to convince Ukraine or its supporters to throw in the towel, so ZNPP was slotted into the fear rhetoric in place of nuclear weapons. This provided some of the reaction the Kremlin was looking for, although there was no accession to Russia's demands.

Russia has used the plant as a military base, assuming that Ukraine will not take the risks inherent in shelling it. The occupying soldiers brutalized the operators, though they continue to run the plant. Russia has also sent in representatives from Rosatom, their state nuclear agency, who seem to have some understanding of what is required at a nuclear plant. The Rosatom presence confuses the Ukrainian operators' chain of command.

Russia should be motivated to keep the plant secure and whole if they want to connect it to their electrical grid. Using it as a nuclear threat conflicts with stealing the electricity. Still, the Russians have made the plant even more of a target by storing military vehicles near the reactors and in the turbine rooms.

It's not clear who is shelling the plant, but it seems aimed at disconnecting the plant from external power rather than directly to creating a radiological disaster. But the off and on operation experienced in recent weeks can damage the electrical equipment, if not the reactors themselves.

After his visit to the plant, the director-general of the IAEA, Rafael Mariano Grossi, has proposed a demilitarized zone around the plant, and in current talks, Russia and Ukraine seem willing to at least stop shelling.

Of course, full withdrawal of Russian troops and a demilitarized zone around the reactor and the city of Enerhodar—where the workers live—would be the best solution. It's hard to think of anything more obvious than the fact nuclear reactors don't belong in the middle of a war.

Cheryl Rofer is an independent scholar. She worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1965 to 2001, developed an essential spectrum for laser isotope separation, managed environmental cleanups at the Laboratory and a program to develop a disposal method for hazardous waste, and worked with Estonia and Kazakhstan to clean up environmental problems left by the Soviet Union.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.