A nuclear power plant on the front lines of the war in Ukraine temporarily cut off from the network

The Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in the midst of fighting Ukraine was temporarily cut off from the power grid on Thursday due to a fire, causing a blackout in the region and raising fears of a disaster in a country haunted by the Chernobyl disaster.

The plant, the largest in Europe, has been occupied by Russian forces since the early days of the war, and continued fighting near the facility has heightened fears of a disaster that could affect nearby towns of southern Ukraine – or potentially an even wider region.

The plant was cut off from the power grid for the first time on Thursday after fires damaged the only working transmission line, according to Ukraine’s nuclear operator. The damaged line was apparently carrying outgoing electricity – and so the region lost power, according to Yevgeny Balitsky, the Russian-installed governor. Following the damage, the two reactors still in operation shut down, he said, but one was quickly restored, as was power to the area.

The line apparently affected is different from that which supplies the cooling systems essential to the safe operation of the reactors. A loss of power in these supply lines is a major concern for experts who watch the fights cautiously.

Still, Thursday’s cut underscored concerns about battles around the plant.

As CBS News Senior Foreign Correspondent Charlie D’Agata reported Ukraine earlier this month, the plant is located on the front line, bordering Russian-held territory on the banks of the Dnipro.

Ukraine says Russia is targeting nuclear power plant with possible false flag operation coming


The government in Kyiv alleges that Russia is essentially holding the plant hostage, stockpiling weapons there and launching attacks from its surroundings. Moscow, meanwhile, accuses Ukraine of recklessly firing at the facility, located in the town of Enerhodar.

“Anyone who understands nuclear security issues has been shaking for six months,” Mycle Schneider, an independent policy consultant and coordinator of the World Nuclear Industry Status Report, said before the latest incident at the plant.

Ukraine cannot simply shut down its nuclear power plants during the war because it is heavily dependent on them and its 15 reactors in four power plants provide around half of its electricity. Still, an ongoing conflict near a working atomic power plant is troubling to many experts who fear a damaged facility could lead to disaster.

That fear is palpable just across the river in Nikopol, where residents have come under almost constant Russian bombardment since July 12, with eight people killed, 850 buildings damaged and more than half of the city’s 100,000 residents fleeing. .

Liudmyla Shyshkina, a 74-year-old widow who lived near the Zaporizhzhia power plant before her apartment was bombed and her husband was killed, said she believed the Russians were capable of intentionally causing a nuclear disaster.

Fighting in early March caused a brief fire at the factory’s training complex that officials say did not result in any radiation release. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russia’s military actions there amounted to “nuclear blackmail.”

On Wednesday, Zelenskyy made a surprise speech from a distance at a meeting of the UN Security Council, accusing Russia of bringing the world to the brink of radioactive catastrophe by carrying out military action near the plant, a reported CBS News correspondent Pamela Falk.

The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant is seen outside the Russian-controlled town of Enerhodar, Ukraine, August 22, 2022.
The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant is seen outside the Russian-controlled town of Enerhodar, Ukraine, August 22, 2022.

Reuters/Alexander Ermoshenko

No civilian nuclear power plant is designed for a wartime situation, although the buildings housing Zaporizhzhia’s six reactors are protected by reinforced concrete that could withstand an errant shell, experts say.

The most immediate concern is that an interruption in the electricity supply could disable cooling systems critical to the safe operation of reactors, and standby diesel generators are sometimes unreliable.

Currently, only one of the four lines supplying the plant with external electricity is operational, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog. External power is essential not only to cool the two reactors still in operation, but also the spent radioactive fuel stored in special facilities on site.

“If we lose the last one, we’re at the complete mercy of emergency power generators,” said Najmedin Meshkati, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Southern California.

Another concern with nearby fighting is that the pools where spent fuel rods are kept for cooling are vulnerable to shelling, which could lead to the release of radioactive material.

Kyiv told the UN atomic agency that shelling earlier this week damaged transformers at a nearby conventional power plant, disrupting power supplies to the Zaporizhzhia plant for several hours.

The head of the atomic agency, Rafael Mariano Grossi, said Thursday that he hoped to send a mission to the plant within “a few days”.

Negotiations on how the mission would gain access to the factory are complicated but progressing, he told France-24 television after meeting French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris, who pressed Russian President Vladimir Putin during of a phone call last week to allow the UN agency to visit the site.

“Kyiv accepts it. Moscow accepts it. So we have to go,” Grossi said.

At a Security Council meeting on Tuesday, UN political chief Rosemary DiCarlo called for the withdrawal of all military personnel and equipment from the plant and an agreement on a demilitarized zone around it. this one.

He and Schneider expressed concern that the occupation of the plant by Russian forces is also hampering safety inspections and the replacement of critical parts, and straining the hundreds of Ukrainian employees who operate the facility.

“The likelihood of human error will be multiplied by fatigue,” said Meshkati, who was part of a committee appointed by the US National Academy of Sciences to learn lessons from the 2011 nuclear disaster at the plant. Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan. “Fatigue and stress are unfortunately two big safety factors.”

If an incident at the Zaporizhzhia plant were to release significant amounts of radiation, the extent and location of the contamination would be largely determined by weather conditions, said Paul Dorfman, a nuclear security expert at the University of Sussex who advised the British and Irish. Governments.

The massive earthquake and tsunami that struck the Fukushima power plant destroyed cooling systems, causing three of its reactors to melt down. Much of the contaminated material was carried away by the wind, limiting the damage.

The April 26, 1986 explosion and fire at one of four reactors at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant north of Kyiv sent a cloud of radioactive material across a wide swath of Europe and beyond. As well as fueling anti-nuclear sentiment in many countries, the disaster left deep psychological scars on Ukrainians.

Zaporizhzhia’s reactors are a different design from Chernobyl’s, but unfavorable winds could still spread radioactive contamination in any direction, Dorfman said.

“If something went really wrong, then we would have a large-scale radiological disaster that could reach Europe, go as far as the Middle East and certainly reach Russia, but the most contamination would be in the immediate area” , did he declare. .

This is why the Nikopol emergency service has been carrying out radiation measurements every hour since the beginning of the Russian invasion. Before that, it was every four hours.

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