Assessing the Danger of Nuclear Accidents in Ukraine: The Case of Zaporizhzhia

No preamble is needed to elucidate the catastrophic upshots the world is undergoing in the aftermath of the military intervention of Russia in Ukraine. Since the war commenced on Feb. 24, between the two former Soviet states, Russia has been consistently intimidating Ukraine about using nukes in the war. This current has been ignited after the Russian military, in March this year, seized Zaporizhzhia nuclear power Plant, the largest power station in Europe and the 10th largest nuclear power plant in the world. The labyrinth that ensued, as a result, is that the seizure is frightening not just to Ukraine, but rather to the whole of Europe and the world.

Amid experiencing the grim economic and political upshots due to the war, the leaders of the international institutions such as the UN and IAEA and different states are gravely concerned with the unpredictable military trajectory of Russia regarding Zaporizhzhia. Since the power station was seized in March, the Russian military has been accused of continuous shelling in and outside of the nuclear power station. Causing ferocious damage, a series of shelling and blasts hit the station that further resulted in disconnecting a reactor from Ukraine’s electricity grid. Therefore, it has given rise to a pressing tension among the scholars of security studies who are scared of a radiological disaster in case of worsening situations and continuous shelling around the station by Russia.

Why the plant is significant?

Being established in the 1980s and consisting of six ‘VVER-1000 pressurized light water nuclear reactors’, this station has been the largest nuclear power station in Europe made of modern designs and technologies which produces about 5,700 to 6,000 megawatts. This amount is half of Ukraine’s total nuclear-derived power which is enough to meet the needs of about four million homes. The power plant, however, is comparatively nearer to the Dnieper River and Kyiv which would cause severe damage if anything queer happens. During the series of shelling, one of the six reactors got drastically demolished for which, Russia and Ukraine accused each other of attacking the station and conducting ‘nuclear terrorism.’ However, Russia is desperate to control the station for its huge significance not only from the aspect of war but also its economic and energy utility.

Responses from international organizations

Remarking on the seizure as “suicidal”, the UN chief António Guterres said that any attack on a nuclear facility is unacceptable and he further demanded that inspectors from the UN nuclear watchdog and IAEA should be granted access to Zaporizhzhia. Likewise, denoting the dreadful outcome of this development, Rafael Grossi, the head of IAEA, showed grave concern and said that the Russian attack on this plant would cause a “nuclear disaster”. However, the leaders from different corners of the world and international organizations like the Non-Proliferation Treaty Organization are extremely afraid of the Zaporizhzhia case.

In August this year, the 10th NPT Review Conference has been held on focusing the subject matter of the Ukraine crisis, in which parties of the agency exhibited “grave concern” regarding the security of Ukraine’s nuclear facilities, particularly, Zaporizhzhia. They also stressed “the paramount importance of ensuring control by Ukraine’s competent authorities” so that any nuclear catastrophe cannot take place. Despite disinclination, however, in early September, Russia enabled access to the UN and IAEA convoys in Zaporizhzhia with limited conditions. Although the development is observed, Russia is still controlling the station and its military’s attack and shelling on the Zaporizhzhia is infringing the norms and regulations of the international security institutions, which is bringing the world into a security labyrinth.

Will Zaporizhzhia bring about catastrophe like Chernobyl and Fukushima?

For some experts, Russia is trying to exploit Zaporizhzhia as a nuclear base for the further trajectory of the war. If Russia continues wrecking the station by shelling, the other five reactors are going to be damaged drastically causing serious heat and radiation that would be disastrous, no doubt. Although the plant is shut down, Volodymyr Zelensky is scared of a ‘radiation disaster.’ Moreover, some security scholars are comparing Zaporizhzhia with Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011) disasters. In case the Zaporizhzhia station reiterates a similar accident, no suspicion that this would be threatening not only to the Ukrainian people rather would imperil the whole world.

However, Mark Wenman, the head of the Centre for Doctoral Training in Nuclear Energy Futures, argued that the matter of worry is the loss of power supply to the reactors and the loss of diesel back-up generators that would lead to the loss of the capacity of coolant which further may cause in turning on melting of the fuel. Wenman, however, rejects the comparisons with either Fukushima (2011) or Chernobyl (1986). His arguments suggest that the Chernobyl PP had grave design and technology flaws and regarding the Fukushima PP, the diesel-powered generators were flooded. Regardless of the two major catastrophes, for Wenman, the generators inside the containment building of Zaporizhzhia PP, are safer than Chernobyl and Fukushima.

Lt Gen Igor Kirillov, senior personnel of Russian nuclear protection admits that the shelling had already destroyed a major part of the support system in the PP in which a pump and generator failure could result in overheating and radioactivity in the core of the plants but it wouldn’t be as disastrous as Fukushima and Chernobyl if both parties stop shelling and allow IAEA inspectors to take care of the PP. However, repudiating the case of Chernobyl in this respect, Claire Corkhill, professor of nuclear material degradation at the University of Sheffield, said, “that wouldn’t be as serious as Chernobyl, but it could still lead to a release of radioactivity and that depends which way the wind’s blowing.” Scientist Cheryl Rofer, in a recent Opinion of Newsweek, opined that the condition of Zaporizhzhia is now comparatively safer. She said, “there is no danger of an accident like that at Chernobyl in 1986, but a meltdown like that at Fukushima, in Japan, remains possible.”

Demilitarization of ZNPP is indispensable

However, apart from all the assessments, possible outcome of a nuclear accident should not be neglected from any perspective. While aiming at gaining victory, Russia is unpredictable in its strategy to some extent for which, the UN and IAEA have less room for carelessness. Not only international organizations but also Ukraine, the US, UK, EU and other countries have obligation to collaboratively work with Russia on this predicament. In this regard, Russia and Ukraine, both must be urged for ensuring the demilitarization of the nuclear power plant. Although it is less possible to occur major catastrophes in the PP, the shutdown of the PP is depriving a huge number of people of electricity. A nuclear power plant is a public common which should not be a tool of military strategy in a war. Therefore, both Russia and Ukraine must withdraw every single military personnel and grant IAEA access to this calamitous nuclear facility declaring the zone of the plant as an internationally regulated demilitarized zone.

[Photo by Ralf1969CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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