Rescuers from Ukraine’s Emergencies Ministry take part in an exercise in the city of Zaporizhia August 17, 2022 in case of a possible nuclear incident at the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant near the city.
Dimitar Dilkoff | AFP | Getty Images
The Russian Defense Ministry warned on Thursday that an accident at the nuclear power plant it occupies in southern Ukraine would blanket Germany, Poland and Slovakia in radioactive material.
Igor Kirillov, the chief of Russia’s Defense Forces for radioactive, chemical and biological agents, said the plant’s emergency supply systems were damaged by shelling, Portal reported, and several countries in Europe could be at risk in an accident.
Thursday’s warning came as tensions came to the fore over the status of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, with the fate of the plant – Europe’s largest nuclear power plant – set to be discussed during talks between UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy Thursday.
Both Russia and Ukraine have repeatedly accused each other of shelling the power plant.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said Thursday it could shut down the nuclear power plant if Ukrainian forces continue shelling the facility. Ukraine denies shelling the facility, instead accusing Russia of endangering the facility because it stores ammunition and military equipment there.
Ukraine and the international community have warned of the possibility of a catastrophic accident at the plant, and on Wednesday the Ministry of Emergency Situations of Ukraine conducted a nuclear disaster drill by accident in the city of Zaporizhia in southeastern Ukraine on the Dnipro River.
Zelenskyy said Wednesday night that Ukrainian diplomats and nuclear scientists are in “constant contact” with the International Atomic Energy Agency and are working to get a team of inspectors into the facility, which has been occupied by Russian troops since the war began.
Tensions over the plant have risen in recent weeks, as Ukraine accused Russia of using the facility as a protective shield and part of a “nuclear blackmail” strategy. Ukrainians who are still working at the facility say they are effectively hostage there, and told the BBC last week they were being held at gunpoint.
The cat-and-mouse game over the power plant continued on Thursday, when Russia’s Defense Ministry claimed on Telegram that Kyiv was planning a “provocation” at the power plant during Guterres’ visit, saying “thereby blaming the Russian Federation for the of Man-made disaster at power plant.”
The ministry added that it set up radiation observation posts near Zaporozhye “in preparation for the provocation” and organized training exercises for a number of military units in the region “on measures to be taken in conditions of radioactive contamination of the area.”
Russia has not provided any evidence to support its claims and has often been accused of false flag operations.
Ukraine’s presidential aide Mykhailo Podolyak said on Twitter that if Russia was concerned about a disaster at the plant, it could withdraw its troops immediately.
What could happen?
The possibility of an accident at Europe’s largest nuclear power plant is a terrifying prospect for Ukraine, a country still living with the scars of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, which remains the world’s worst nuclear accident and resulted in radioactive emissions Material spread across Europe.
“Probably more than any other country in the world, Ukraine is aware of the consequences of an explosion and fire at a nuclear power plant,” said Antony Froggatt and Patricia Lewis, environment and safety experts at British think tank Chatham House, in an investigation last week case Zaporizhia is at stake.
However, they noted that Zaporizhia’s reactors are different from Chernobyl’s, but that an accident at the plant could have significant consequences for Ukraine.
“Zaporizhia uses enriched uranium, its current VVER [water-water energetic reactors] Reactors are not moderated by graphite but by water, which means they are safer and don’t burn like Chernobyl,” they said.
Modern reactors in Ukraine, like Zaporizhia, are also surrounded by a secondary containment system — a hard concrete shell designed to withstand explosions and a downed plane, they noted.
“However, it is unclear how effective they would be against attacks, since the containment wall thickness in this reactor design is traditionally 1.2 meters and new construction projects require a thickness of about two meters,” they said.
However, they noted that radioactive material in Zaporizhzhia is also stored in the spent fuel ponds (or ponds), where spent fuel is held underwater to cool and lower radiation levels before being shipped to a repository.
“When coolant is lost from the ponds, either by a direct hit that breaches containment structures or by core melting due to power losses, the stored fuel heats up. If the temperature rises above about 900 degrees Celsius, the envelope around the zirconium cladding will ignite, leading to the spread of radioactive material,” they warned.
While any release of radioactive isotopes could be “catastrophic” for surrounding areas, Froggatt and Lewis said that “due to the nature of the reactors at Zaporizhia, the impact would likely be nowhere near as severe as the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, and rather similar.” would be on the scale of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis.”