For a year and a half, the world has bourn witness to an unprecedented spectacle: the military occupation of a civilian atomic energy station.
The March 2022 seizure by Russian troops of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in Southeastern Ukraine has forced six nuclear reactors and pools of spent nuclear fuel onto the front lines of the biggest land war in Europe since World War II.
It’s something the world nuclear energy community never thought it would see — and thus never prepared for. As a result, the world has watched helplessly as heavy ordinance strikes nail-bitingly close to the plant on a regular basis, repeatedly severing outside power to the facility’s cooling and safety systems.
According to Rafael Grossi, who heads the UN’s atomic energy agency —and who has repeatedly beseeched Moscow and Kyiv to create a non-military safe zone around the plant — the situation is a gamble with radioactive stakes.
“We are rolling a dice and if this continues then one day our luck will run out,” he has said more than once.
Unfortunately, the time has come to ponder just what it would look like were that to happen.
This is the subject of a new Bellona report entitled “The Radiation Risks of Seizing the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant.”
In it, we analyze a variety of war-time scenarios that could befall the plant and what the consequences of those might be.
What would happen if any of the plant’s six Soviet-built VVER-1000 nuclear reactors were struck by artillery? Or a missile? What about the spent nuclear fuel storage pools? What if those were struck? Where would the radioactive fallout from any of these events go?
And perhaps, in light of recent events, the most salient danger — what would happen if the plant was unable to maintain outside power to run reactor cooling systems? Would that amount to Fukushima redux?
We also present a number of recommendations that should be followed in order to keep the plant safe while it continues to be hostage to the aggression.
Among them, we urge the Russian and Ukrainians struggling for control of the plant to keep the reactors in shut-down mode, which would greatly reduce the severity of a radiological accident. We also recommend that no nuclear fuel be unloaded, packed for storage or transported. These are complex technical tasks that cannot be undertaken by a hostage workforce while a war rages on around them.
Above all, we urge a Russian withdrawal from the plant and Ukraine as a whole, for it is not until then that anything like safe operation of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant can be restored.