Ukraine has already endured one of the worst disasters in the history of nuclear energy — the accident at the Chernobyl plant in 1986. Less than four decades later, nuclear alarm bells are ringing again in the region — this time over the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station in southern Ukraine.
The Zaporizhzhia plant was built by the Soviet Union in the early 1980s. Its six water-cooled reactors occupy half a square mile on the banks of the Dnieper River near the town of Enerhodar. With a capacity of 5,700 MW, it is Europe’s largest nuclear plant. Until the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, it used to supply one-fifth of the country’s electricity.
Soon after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his ‘special military operation’, on March 4, Russian forces took over the plant. It continued to be operated by Ukrainian staff, but under the supervision of executives from Rosatom, Russia’s state-owned atomic energy corporation. While things were initially quiet, recent weeks have seen the war spill over into the premises of the plant, raising the spectre of yet another nuclear disaster.
Ukraine and the U.S. have accused Russia of using the Zaporizhzhia plant as a ‘nuclear shield’ to launch attacks. Russia has about 500 soldiers and more than 50 pieces of military hardware in the plant complex. But it has denied launching attacks from the plant, and accused Ukraine of shelling the plant with the aim of causing a nuclear incident that could then be pinned on Russia. In fact, on August 18, Russia’s Defence Ministry claimed that Kyiv was planning a “provocation” at the plant during UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres’s visit to Ukraine.
Earlier, on August 5, the plant suffered severe shelling that damaged an electrical switchboard, leading to a power shutdown. Rafael Grossi, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), warned that “the situation is very fragile” and tried to organise an IAEA mission to Zaporizhzhia to inspect the safety status of the plant. Such a visit would need the concurrence of both Russia and Ukraine. But Ukraine was quick to block the visit, refusing permission on the grounds that allowing the IAEA into the Russian-held plant would be akin to acknowledging, if not legitimising, Russian sovereignty over the nuclear plant.
Subsequently, the Ukrainian line in the war of narratives over who is responsible for dragging a nuclear plant into the war began to shift. From accusing Russia of using the plant as a ‘nuclear shield’, Ukraine now claims that Russia is purposely launching attacks on the nuclear plant. The purpose of these dangerous attacks, Ukraine claims, is to target the transmission infrastructure so that Zaporizhzhia is severed from the Ukrainian grid, the larger plan being to connect it to the grid for Crimea instead.
Although the plant has come under periodic shelling, experts believe the risk posed by targeted shelling of the reactors is minimal. Unlike the Chernobyl reactor that exploded, the Zaporizhzhia reactors are encased in concrete that’s nearly 10 metres thick, making damage from shelling unlikely. Experts point to two likely accident scenarios — a reactor meltdown caused by damage to the cooling systems, and leakage of radioactive material due to an attack on spent fuel storage sites. In either case, the fallout would be localised, and limited to a maximum of 30-km radius.
Given that even in a worst-case scenario, the effects of an accident would not be felt beyond the war zone, what explains the tendency, on either side, to play up the nuclear risks? For the Russians, it could serve two ends: to try and discourage the West from feeding the Ukrainian war effort with military aid, and at the same time, keep up domestic support for the war. For Ukraine, the discourse of a nuclear scare is another opportunity to garner sympathy from the global community and put further pressure on Russia.
From Chernobyl to Three Mile Island and Fukushima, nuclear disasters have all been in peacetime. It is rare for a nuclear plant to be caught in a war zone. And yet, shutting down a nuclear reactor is not easy either. At the same, with Ukrainian staffers fleeing the plant at every opportunity, and new recruits hard to come by, it is becoming difficult for Russia to keep the plant running, and running safely.