‘The stakes are too high’ A radiochemist explains what a nuclear disaster at the Zaporizhzhia power plant would look like
Interview by Kristina Safonova. Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale.
The Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant — the largest nuclear power station in Europe — has been under Russian military control since early March. According to the Institute for the Study of War, Russia may be storing heavy military equipment in the facility itself, using it as a shield from Ukrainian strikes. Russian and Ukrainian forces have been fighting in the plant’s vicinity for months now, but in the last week, reports of shelling attacks on the station itself have been on the rise. To get a sense of what this portends for the war's future and for the civilians who live in the area, Meduza spoke to radiochemist Boris Zhuikov.
Right now, Europe’s largest nuclear power plant is located in perhaps the most dangerous place it could be: the edge of Ukraine's occupied territory. And because the Russian forces occupying the station aren’t letting anybody in, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which radiochemist Boris Zhuikov says is the best source for up-to-date information on the situation, has to find ways to monitor it from afar.
“There’s some kind of [remote] information reporting system,” he told Meduza. “But [...] to what extent the full story is being reported is one of the biggest questions right now.”
According to Zhuikov, there’s been talk of an IAEA commission paying a visit to the plant, which is still being run by Ukrainian technicians. But both the Russian and Ukrainian sides have doubts about the feasibility of such a visit.
“The Russian side suspects the IAEA of being biased and politicized,” Zhuikov said. “I’ve been to the IAEA [office] a number of times, and there are a lot of people from developing countries working there. Interfering in political issues is not their goal.”
Meanwhile, Ukraine has raised safety concerns. Not only would it be nearly impossible to guarantee the security of the IAEA commission members in an active warzone, it would also be difficult to ensure that Ukrainian workers at the Zaporizhzhia plant were speaking freely in interviews.
“If the IAEA asks some of [the workers] about what’s been happening and the Russian authorities or Russian soldiers are monitoring [the conversation], the workers might be worried about their future safety; they could be afraid of subsequent retribution for giving honest answers,” said Zhuikov. “Perhaps these people should be brought to neutral territory and questioned there. In short, this is a complicated issue.”
What we do know
Russian forces captured the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in the earliest days of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. If the Russian authorities hope to annex the surrounding areas and control the facility permanently, though, they’re going to have more than a few issues to contend with. For one thing, the station is connected to Ukraine’s power grid.
“This is absolute vital, because the station doesn’t just provide electricity — it also consumes it, in part because of its cooling system,” said Zhuikov. “It’s possible for the reactors to function autonomously, but that’s not how they're intended to work, and they can only do it for a limited amount of time.”
Even if Russia was theoretically able to switch the plant over to the Russian power grid, though, they would still have to rely on the expertise of Ukrainian technicians; while the plant relies on VVERs (water-water energetic reactors), which were designed in the Soviet Union, the equipment at the Zaporizhzhia plant differs significantly from that of Russia’s nuclear stations. One of the reactors, for example, uses fuel elements that come from the U.S. — and replacing it, Zhuikov said, would be no easy task.
According to Zhuikov, representatives of the Russian state energy corporation Rosatom have come to the plant to observe operations. “But they’ve hardly interfered at all with the station’s management, which is handled by Ukrainian workers, and rightly so.”
On August 3, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi reported that the supply chain of equipment and spare parts at the Zaporizhzhia plant had been interrupted. Zhuikov told Meduza that while Russia can likely replace some of the necessary components, others, like the software used to manage the station’s operations, might not be accessible.
“This is also a difficult issue,” he said, “but it doesn’t appear like to cause an immediate disaster. ”
Sign up for Meduza’s daily newsletter
A digest of Russia’s investigative reports and news analysis. If it matters, we summarize it.
The worst-case scenario
In just the last week, the shelling around — and sometimes directly at — the Zaporizhzhia station has reportedly intensified; soldiers have even begun using artillery rather than small arms. Both the Russian and Ukrainian militaries have each accused the other of being responsible.
But while the prospect of a nuclear disaster in Ukraine inevitably brings to mind the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, Zhuikov said an accident on that scale is not what he fears.
“I consider it extremely unlikely that a reactor itself — a reactor’s core — will be damaged in a way that results in most of its radioactivity being released,” he told Meduza. “A disaster like the one at Chernobyl or with the consequences of a nuclear explosion are a fantasy. [The reactors at Zaporizhzhia] would be very hard to destroy even if you wanted to. They’re surrounded by powerful enclosures and additional protective layers.”
A more apt comparison, he said, might be the 2011 Fukushima disaster. But there are still some important differences between the Ukrainian plant and the Japanese one.
“The radioactive water that was released as a result of the [Fukushima] incident was partially dumped into the Pacific Ocean. The Pacific Ocean is huge, so nothing disastrous happened. The Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant sits on the bank of the Kakhovka Reservoir on the Dnipro river. If radioactive materials enter the river, which would be quite likely in the case of an accident, it would be very bad,” he said.
In 2015, Zhuikov said, a team of Russian researchers simulated a nuclear disaster at the Zaporizhzhia plant to determine what its likely effects would be. (They based the study on the idea of an earthquake — a rare occurrence that, at the time, was still considered more plausible than active shelling in the area). The study found that the party that would suffer most would be the residents of the surrounding territories — even if no deaths occurred.
“The situation would be extremely unpleasant — just like it was in Fukushima. In Fukushima, nobody died, but everyone had to be resettled, and the Japanese had to take all kinds of thorough safety measures,” said Zhuikov.
Essentially, if nuclear materials were released from the Zaporizhzhia plant, the main threat to civilians would be long-term exposure to nuclear isotopes that would severely increase their risk of developing cancer. An exclusionary zone would have to be established, and while people would be able to work and take tours there with personal protective equipment on, actually living there would be too dangerous.
The amount of time people would have to evacuate after an accident would depend on exactly what elements were leaked.
“If a working reactor were destroyed and Iodine-131 were released, the evacuation would need to take place in a matter of days. If Cesium-137 (Editor's note: a byproduct of nuclear fission] were released, they would probably have a month,” said Zhuikov.
In other words, if a shell happens to hit the Zaporizhzhia station in the wrong spot, it will render the entire territory both the Russian and Ukrainian armies are fighting to control uninhabitable. “It won’t matter who fired the first shot,” Zhuikov noted.
The only feasible solution, he said, is to establish a demilitarized zone around the station.
“The stakes are too high. And all of the responsibility [if there were an accident] would lie with the side that hadn’t [withdrawn its troops from the area]. And the people living there would not forgive them,” he said.
Follow Meduza on Twitter.