Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant at Center of New Ukraine War Fears

The prospect of a disaster at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, just over 300 miles from the site of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe, is causing alarm in Ukraine.

The Zaporizhzhia plant was one of the first sites seized by Russian troops following their full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

With both sides accusing each other of shelling the site, the Ukrainian government has accused Moscow of "trying to induce a nuclear disaster."

The Kyiv government warned on Friday that Russia's actions could cut off power to the plant and that a nuclear disaster at the site "may be 10 times more powerful than" the Chernobyl meltdown.

The potential of an atomic catastrophe with continent-wide consequences has drawn minds back to 36 years ago when a Soviet-era reactor exploded and streamed radiation into the atmosphere in Ukraine's north.

Ukrainian staff working at the plant under Russian direction made an emotional appeal in a Telegram post on Thursday, explaining exactly what was at stake.

It said the facility had been the target of "continuous military attacks" over the past two weeks that have become "more and more powerful and dangerous" while the threat to the nuclear security facilities becomes "more and more real."

"Think about the future of our Earth, about the future of our and your children," read the post, which was translated from Ukrainian. It also warned that there are no emergency plans to protect nuclear facilities facing military hostilities.

Where Is The Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant?

The largest nuclear power plant in Europe and one of the 10 largest in the world, the facility was built near the city of Enerhodar, on the southern shore of the Kakhovka Reservoir on the Dnieper river.

The city in the northwestern part of the Zaporizhzhya region is currently under the control of the Russian armed forces.

Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station
This handout photo taken from a video released by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on Sunday, Aug. 7, 2022, a general view of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station in territory under Russian military control, southeastern Ukraine. There are fears that any shelling of the plant could cause a nuclear disaster. Russian Defense Ministry via AP

Construction began in 1980 and the first of its six pressurized water reactors was commissioned in 1985, the final one in 1996.

The facility is operated by the Ukrainian state enterprise, Energoatom, which also runs Ukraine's other three nuclear power stations, none of which are near the front lines.

What Is The Current Threat Around Zaporizhzhia?

UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who met Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky and Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Lviv on Thursday, said: "Any potential damage to Zaporizhzhia is suicide."

This month, General Valery Vasiliev, the commander of Russia's radiation, chemical and biological troops, allegedly threatened to detonate explosives at the plant, although this report was rejected as likely to be false by the Institute for the Study of War.

Nuclear expert Hamish de Breton-Gordon told the newspaper The National this week that if explosives are wired up inside the plant to blow up, "then the chances for meltdown and contamination is extremely high," he said.

"They've got six reactors at Zaporizhzhia, so in the worst case the contamination could be absolutely massive and catastrophic," he said. "It would be less harmful to use a tactical nuclear weapon."

European intelligence officials have told Bloomberg that Russia is likely to be using the power plant to provide cover for troops and equipment, which would undermine the safety of the plant's operations.

Intelligence officials also assessed that Russia would continue to spread disinformation painting Ukraine's actions toward the plant as reckless and Moscow has warned of unsubstantiated false-flag operations.

Mark Nelson, founder of the Radiant Energy Fund, an adviser on nuclear energy, dismissed claims that an accident at the plant could cover parts of Europe with radioactive substances.

He told Newsweek that the containment domes around Zaporizhzhia's reactors are 1.2 meters (3.9 feet) thick and made of concrete with steel reinforcement. This means they are strong enough to allow the total depressurization of the primary circuit of the reactors in any pressure event.

"Accidental shelling with smaller munitions are extremely unlikely to breach the domes," he said.

The trickiest internal event would be if a reactor in full power operation suddenly has a violent chopping of its pipes carrying hot water in and out of the reactor. Then all the water loses pressure and flashes almost instantly into steam.

"The domes are designed to contain this extremely powerful event."

How Does Zaporizhzhia Compare to Chernobyl?

Experts say there are important differences between Zaporizhzhia and Chernobyl.

Nelson said Chernobyl was a radically different design that "had little more than a glorified shed above the reactor, and the reactor did not have a surrounding high pressure containment—just a heavy concrete lid sitting on top."

"Comparisons to Chernobyl are almost completely useless, unless noting the difference in accident possibilities," he told Newsweek.

"Chernobyl kept operating as a nuclear power plant. So even the 'death zone' was a myth in terms of practical danger to working people at the plant.

Nuclear materials expert Mark Wenman of Imperial College London told the BBC in March that the Zaporizhzhia site was far more secure than Chernobyl.

He said the plant's reactor was in a steel-reinforced concrete building that can handle "extreme external events, both natural and man-made," including an aircraft crash or an explosion.

The Zaporizhzhia plant also does not contain any graphite in its reactor. Graphite at Chernobyl caused a large fire and was the source of the radiation plume that spread across Europe.

Unlike Chernobyl's RBMK-1000 reactors, Zaporizhzhia uses more modern pressurized water reactors, which require much less uranium fuel in the reactor core, thus limiting the likelihood of a runaway chain reaction.

Robin Grimes, a professor of materials physics at Imperial College London, told Live Science in March that puncturing the Zaporizhzhia reactors' twin shells would not lead to an explosion like Chernobyl, but would release a lot of dangerous material.

Nelson said: "If people want to be alert in ways that match the possible severity of intentional actions to destroy the plant, then being ready to stay inside for a few days with windows closed is a good step to take, with the knowledge that multiple meltdowns could take place without releasing radiation."

Newsweek has reached out to the International Atomic Energy Agency for comment.

Update 08/19/22, 10:55 a.m. ET: This article was updated to add comments from Mark Nelson.