Shutting Down Ukraine Nuclear Power Plant Could Have Worldwide Consequences

The Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine could be at risk for a shutdown, which one Russian Armed Forces lieutenant general says could lead to an emergency with the spread of radioactive substances.

Russian troops took control of ZNPP, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, in March, and there have been widespread concerns about a nuclear disaster as ZNPP remains a central point in the fighting. The plant was repeatedly shelled this summer, and both Ukraine and Russia have blamed each other for the attacks, accusing the other side of engaging in "nuclear blackmail."

Nuclear experts say that a potential ZNPP shutdown could lead to energy implications for Ukraine as well as to long-term concerns, such as worsening climate change.

Scott Roecker, nuclear materials security vice president at Nuclear Threat Initiative, said if a ZNPP strike or shutdown were to occur, it could cause a reaction much worse than Chernobyl.

Once nuclear fuel is used, it is considered "spent fuel" and is then stored onsite in the reactor in spent fuel ponds or outside of the reactor in dry casks. After several years, the spent fuel is ideally moved to a long-term repository. However, Europe has struggled with finding locations for long-term repositories. Decades worth of radioactive spent fuel is stored onsite at ZNPP.

"If one of those [dry casks] were to be hit with a missile or some artillery, it could create a release of radiation bigger than we've seen in Chernobyl," Roecker said. "It could be a more catastrophic event than we've seen before."

Roecker said it's tough to determine how far radioactive materials could spread, as much of the spread is dependent on wind. He did say the radioactive release wouldn't be a nuclear explosion and wouldn't cause a mushroom cloud.

Ukraine Power Plant At Risk of Shutdown
A Ukrainian Emergency Ministry rescuer attends an exercise in the city of Zaporizhzhia on August 17 in case of a possible nuclear incident at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant located near the city. If the plant were to shut down, it could cause worldwide issues. DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty Images

Lieutenant General Igor Kirillov, head of the radiation, chemical and biological defense troops of the Russian Armed Forces, said on Thursday that Ukraine is planning a "provocation" attack for Friday when United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres is scheduled to visit the city of Odessa. The United Nations previously requested that Russian forces demilitarize the power plant, which Russia rejected. If a provocation were to occur, Kirillov said Ukraine would use the attack to accuse Russia of nuclear terrorism.

Kirillov said the Russian Armed Forces ordered the 44th Independent Artillery Bridge to "be ready for action in the conditions of radiation contamination of the area" on August 19, according to an English translation of a statement posted to Telegram. The attacks, according to Kirillov, are expected to be launched from Nikopol, a city approximately 120 miles from the plant.

While there's potential for a shutdown to release "toxic materials," Michael Golay, a professor of nuclear science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said another Chernobyl-like catastrophe isn't likely.

"The designs of the (ZNPP) system are sufficiently different," he said.

Golay added that a ZNPP shutdown would be more disastrous if it occurred during the winter months when more fuel is needed to heat homes. Although ZNPP is the largest plant in Europe, there are three other nuclear plants with multiple reactors in Ukraine, although those plants may not be able to fully absorb the ZNPP service capacity.

Golay's main concerns if ZNPP were to shut down are more focused on worldwide consequences than Ukraine-specific effects. Nuclear energy emits fewer greenhouse gases than fossil fuels do. Widespread fear of nuclear energy could lead to a reduction of nuclear plants, which Golay and Roecker said could worsen climate change.

"The Earth is heating up, and we don't have any way to stop it right now except to stop putting more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere," Golay said. "The nice thing about nuclear is it doesn't emit much in the way of greenhouse gases."

Golay said if societies were to become increasingly frightened of using nuclear power plants, it could lead to increased use of fossil fuels, therefore adding more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

"In order to get off fossil fuels, you have to get on something else," Golay said. "And nuclear can be an important part of that portfolio, but if people have reasons to decide not to use it then it puts you in a worse spot."

Both Golay and Roecker condemned Russia's actions near the plant. Golay called Russia's actions "terribly irresponsible," and Roecker said Russia was daring Ukraine to fire back by attacking the nation from ZNPP.

Andriy Yusov, a spokesman for the Ukrainian Defense Ministry's Main Intelligence Directorate, said to NBC News that Russia told the majority of ZNPP staff not to go to work on Friday.

"We do not rule out the possibility of massive Russian provocations on the territory of the ZNPP tomorrow. This is confirmed by their propaganda, information from our sources, and the behavior of the Russians at the station," he said to NBC, referring to the power plant.