Zaporizhia nuclear plant: robbery of a nuclear power plant

The situation at the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant is delicate. Staff is under stress, the power supply is precarious. What happens if Russia takes over the reactors?

Five reactors of a nuclear power plant

The Zaporizhia nuclear power plant in early August, photo taken by the Russian Defense Ministry Photo: Photo: Uncredited/Russian Defense Ministry Press Service/AP/dpa

When building nuclear power plants, nobody takes into account that one day they could be in a war zone. A fatal flaw, as we see in Ukraine: Zaporizhia is not designed to withstand military attack. Even the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), actually a proponent of nuclear power, warns of a nuclear catastrophe in Europe's largest nuclear power plant. Due to the extremely sensitive situation, the United Nations are demanding a demilitarized zone in and around the nuclear power plant. Unfortunately, there is currently no sign of a solution to the tense situation.

Nuclear power plants are particularly protected under international law. According to an additional protocol of the Geneva Convention for the Protection of the Population in Armed Conflicts, buildings that pose a particular risk – such as dams or nuclear power plants – should not be involved in acts of war. However, neither the Geneva Convention nor the constant presence of IAEA inspectors can currently prevent further shelling of the nuclear power plant. An emergency room is no longer available for reactor safety because the military is quartered there.

It is particularly critical that the Ukrainian operating crew is exposed to an almost unimaginable level of stress. Up to 11,000 people used to work in the large power plant complex, now there are around 1,000 Ukrainian employees, it is reported. This attrition poses a serious safety concern. The full employability of a nuclear power plant workforce is critical.

The first major meltdown accident at a large nuclear power plant, the Three Mile Island accident near Harrisburg in 1979, escalated because the operating crew could not correctly interpret the condition of the reactor. Only after the shift change were the problems recognized and correct countermeasures initiated. Harrisburg was a reminder: In order to correctly read the large amount of information in a control room, even if it appears to contradict one another, an extraordinarily high degree of concentration is required. How can that be guaranteed given the circumstances prevailing in Zaporizhia?

A nuclear power plant needs cooling even when it is switched off

Another problem at the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant is the destroyed connections to the power grid. A nuclear power plant also has to be cooled when it is switched off and needs a lot of electricity for this, which is fed in externally in normal operation. While nuclear fission can be stopped by switching it off, the fission fragments alone produce it the problematic afterheat caused by radioactive decay.

Radioactive decay cannot be influenced; all you can do is wait for the performance to drop - and keep cooling while doing so. If the cooling does not work sufficiently, the nuclear fuel heats up. From 800 degrees Celsius, an oxidation process begins, which produces hydrogen. In other words, in the event of a power failure and lack of cooling, the reactor creates its own explosives, which can lead to complete reactor destruction and large releases of radioactivity.

So that the nuclear power plant can supply the Russian-occupied Crimea – because that seems to be the goal of Russia – it must first be disconnected from the Ukrainian network. Ukraine rightly disagrees with that. But this situation is extremely dangerous. For a limited period of time, a reactor can run in island mode and only generate electricity for its own use.

However, this is not a stable state due to the very low power. In the event of an interruption to the power supply, emergency diesel would still be available, which could maintain the cooling for ten days. There is no precedent for this. If the tanks of the generators are empty, around 200 tons of diesel would be required for operation in the short term, which is not easy to obtain in the turmoil of war.

It seems to be about the illegal robbery of a nuclear power plant. This raises complicated questions. What if Rosatom completely takes over the reactor? When the power lines are connected to the Russian grid? What is the role of the IAEA if it behaves “neutrally” and focuses solely on technical verification? Will the robbery be approved if the work has been carried out technically correctly?

While sanctions are being imposed on oil, coal and gas, or at least significant efforts are being made to end dependency, the nuclear sector is being exempted from sanctions against Russia. You even enter into new dependencies.

Russian nuclear technology in the EU

Rosatom is the world's largest designer of nuclear power plants: there are 34 new reactor construction projects in 11 countries. All are supported by the IAEA and relations are close. Russia is also building new nuclear reactors in Europe. Only on August 26, 2022 did Hungary issue the building permit for the construction of two new Russian VVER 1200 reactors in Paks.

For the first time, this type of reactor can be built in the European Union. This not only brings Russia many billions of euros from Europe, but also leads to further energy dependency, and that for decades to come. A total of 16 reactors in Europe depend on Russian supplies.

At the same time, we are dealing with a new threat situation due to the warlike actions of Russia. Cyber ​​attacks also pose a risk. If the conflict escalates, any nuclear power plant could be a potential military target. The conclusion can therefore only be: if Europe is at war, Europe should not operate nuclear power plants.

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