How dangerous was the Russian attack on the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine? Experts warn that the war carries extreme risks

Europe’s largest nuclear power plant was hit by Russian shelling early Friday, sparking a fire and raising fears of a disaster that could affect all of central Europe for decades, like the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown.

Concerns eased after Ukrainian authorities announced the fire had been extinguished, and although the reactor room was damaged, the unit’s safety was not compromised.

But although the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant has a different design than Chernobyl and is protected from fire, nuclear safety experts and the International Atomic Energy Agency warn that waging wars in and around such plants poses extreme risks.

A major concern expressed by Ukraine’s state nuclear regulator is that if fighting cuts power to the nuclear plant, the nuclear plant would be forced to use less reliable diesel generators to provide backup power for running cooling systems. A failure of these systems could lead to a disaster similar to that at the Fukushima plant in Japan, when a massive earthquake and tsunami destroyed cooling systems and triggered meltdowns in three reactors in 2011.

The consequences of this, said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, would be far-reaching and devastating.

“If there’s an explosion, it’s the end for everyone. The end for Europe. The evacuation of Europe,” he said in an emotional speech in the middle of the night, urging the nations to put pressure on the Russian leadership to end the fighting near the plant.

“Only urgent European action can stop the Russian troops. Don’t let Europe die in a nuclear power plant disaster.”


After capturing the strategic port city of Kherson, Russian forces pushed into the area near Zaporizhia and late Thursday attacked the nearby town of Enerhodar to open a route to the plant.

It was not immediately clear how the power plant was hit, but Enerhodar Mayor Dmytro Orlov said a Russian military column was seen heading towards the nuclear facility and loud gunfire was heard in the city.

Later on Friday, Ukrainian authorities said Russia had taken over the nuclear power plant.

Plant spokesman Andriy Tuz told Ukrainian television that early Friday morning shells hit the plant directly, setting one of the six reactors on fire.

Firefighters were initially unable to approach the flames because they were being shot at, Tuz said.

After speaking with Ukrainian authorities on Friday, Rafael Grossi, the director-general of the IAEA, the United Nations nuclear regulatory agency, said a building next to the reactors was hit and not a reactor itself.

“All the safety systems of the plant’s six reactors were not affected at all and there was no release of radioactive material,” he said.

“However, as you can imagine, the operator and the regulator have informed us that the situation naturally remains extremely tense and challenging.”

Earlier this week, Grossi warned that the IAEA was “seriously concerned” that Russian forces were conducting military operations in such close proximity.

“It is vital that the armed conflict and on-site activities surrounding the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant and other nuclear facilities of Ukraine in no way disrupt or endanger the facilities or the people working on and around them,” he said .


The reactor that was hit was shut down but still contains highly radioactive nuclear fuel. Four of the other six reactors have now been taken offline, leaving only one in operation.

The plant’s reactors have thick concrete containment domes that would have protected them from external shelling by tanks and artillery, said Jon Wolfsthal, who served as executive director for arms control and non-proliferation on the National Security Council during the Obama administration.

At the same time, a fire at a nuclear power plant is never a good thing, he said.

“We don’t want our nuclear power plants to be under attack, to be on fire and for first responders not to be able to access them,” he said.

Another hazard in nuclear facilities are the pools used to cool spent fuel rods, which are more vulnerable to shelling and could cause the release of radioactive material.

Perhaps the biggest problem, however, is the facility’s power supply, said Najmedin Meshkati, an engineering professor at the University of Southern California who has studied both the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters, voicing a concern shared by Wolfsthal and others became.

Failure of the external power supply could force the facility to rely on emergency diesel generators which are very unreliable and could fail or run out of fuel causing the station to lose power which would stop the water circulation used for cooling of the spent fuel pool is needed, he said.

“That’s my big — biggest concern,” he said.

David Fletcher, a professor at the University of Sydney’s School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering who previously worked at UK Atomic Energy, noted that even shutting down the reactors would not help if the cooling system failed in this way.

“The real concern is not a catastrophic explosion like at Chernobyl, but damage to the cooling system, which is required even if the reactor is shut down,” he said in a statement. “This type of damage led to the Fukushima accident.”


Ukraine relies heavily on nuclear power, with 15 reactors at four stations providing about half of the country’s electricity.

After the attack on Zaporizhia, US President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and others called for an immediate end to the fighting there.

After talks with Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, IAEA Director Grossi appealed to all parties to “refrain from actions” that could endanger Ukraine’s nuclear power plants.

Shmyhal called on western nations to shut down the skies over the country’s nuclear power plants.

“It’s about the safety of the whole world!” he said in a statement.

Ukraine is also home to the former Chernobyl nuclear power plant, which is still leaking radioactivity, which was captured by Russian forces early in the invasion after a pitched battle with the Ukrainian National Guard protecting the decommissioned plant.

In an appeal for help to the IAEA earlier this week, Ukrainian officials said Chernobyl personnel had been held by the Russian military without rotation and were exhausted.

Grossi earlier this week appealed to Russia to let Chernobyl workers “do their job safely and effectively.”

During the weekend’s fighting, Russian fire also hit a radioactive waste disposal facility in Kyiv and a similar facility in Kharkiv.

Both contained low-level radioactive waste of the kind generated by medical use, and no radioactive release was reported, but Grossi said the incidents should serve as a warning.

“The two incidents highlight the risk that radioactive material facilities could be damaged during the armed conflict, with potentially serious consequences,” he said.

James Acton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the simple key to keeping the facilities safe is to immediately end all military operations around them.

“Under normal circumstances, there’s a very, very small chance that a reactor will lose power and the backup diesels will be damaged and not repaired quickly enough,” Acton said.

“But in a war, all these different failures that would have to happen for a reactor to get damaged and collapse — the likelihood of all of that happening becomes a lot more likely than in peacetime.”

Mitsuru Fukuda, a professor at Nihon University in Tokyo and an expert on crisis management and security, said the Zaporozhye attack raised broader questions for all countries.

“Many of us did not expect that the military of a respected country would take such an outrageous step,” he said. “Now that (Russian President Vladimir) Putin has done it, not only Ukraine but also the international community, including Japan, should reassess the risk of having nuclear power plants as potential war targets.”


Associated Press writers Lynn Berry and Michael Biesecker in Washington, Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2022 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. How dangerous was the Russian attack on the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine? Experts warn that the war carries extreme risks

Dais Johnston

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