What will happen if the shelling continues at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant?

KYIV, Ukraine – When Russian forces took control of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in early March, a fierce gunfight with Ukrainian troops triggered an explosion that sparked worldwide alarm. about the risk of catastrophic radioactive leaks.

The fire was quickly extinguished. And although a Russian shell hit Reactor 1, its thick walls protected it from damage, the Ukrainian government said at the time.

Now, five months later, repeated shelling of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant complex over the past seven days has raised new concerns, with Ukrainian and Western officials warning that the attacks increase the risk of a nuclear accident.

Each side blamed the other for the factory explosions.

The Ukrainians have accused the Russians of directing attacks there to cut off energy supplies to other cities and try to discredit the Ukrainian military in the eyes of the world. The Russians say Ukraine is shelling.

Both sides will suffer if a meltdown occurs and releases radioactive material.

Ukrainian officials also expressed growing concern about working conditions at the facility. More than 10,000 Ukrainian employees are charged with keeping the plant safe even as Russia has turned it into a military fortress and engaged in what Ukrainian officials say is a campaign of intimidation and harassment. .

Rafael M. Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said Thursday at a United Nations Security Council meeting that the world faces “serious hours” as the safety of factory in decline and called for an international team of experts. be given access to the factory immediately.

Mr Grossi said there was currently “no immediate threat” as a result of the recent shelling but warned that the assessment “could change at any time.”

The United States has called for a demilitarized zone around the plant, but Russia has given no indication that it will even consider leaving the facility.

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, speaking to a country that still bears the scars of nuclear disaster from the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown, said the Kremlin was engaged in “nuclear blackmail”. undisclosed personnel” and called the situation at the factory “one of the greatest crimes of the terrorist state.”

As world officials warn of growing risks at the plant, here’s a look at the situation and the most pressing concerns.

The Zaporizhzhia plant occupies a position on the Dnipro River along the front line between Russia and Ukraine. The Ukrainian army controlled the west bank, while the Russian army entrenched around the factory on the east bank of the river.

For weeks, Ukrainian officials said, Russian forces had been consolidating outside the plant and using it as a staging ground for attacks on Ukrainian-controlled territory, calculating that Ukrainian forces will not return fire because of the risk posed by a misguided attack. Ukrainian officials said they barely returned fire, and when they fired it was guided, like a drone.

On August 5, artillery shells hit the complex. The shelling has continued over the past week.

After being shelled on Thursday, workers at the plant were forced to activate an emergency protective power unit, according to a statement from Energoatom, the Ukrainian agency responsible for operating all power plants. Ukraine’s nuclear. They said the plant is currently facing the risk of operating below fire safety standards due to a damaged internal electrical system.

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Another shelling ignited a fire in the area of ​​the plant’s oxygen and nitrogen stations, but it was extinguished.

At least one employee working in the dry nuclear fuel storage area was wounded in another shelling.

While they are designed to withstand a wide range of risks – from aircraft crashes to facilities to natural disasters – none of the operating nuclear power plants are in active combat, and this plant not designed with the cruise missile threat in mind.

There are several key concerns.

Officials say the concrete shells of the site’s six reactors offer solid protection, as was the case with the No. 1 reactor attack in March. More worrisome is the possibility of the power transformer being hit by a bullet, increasing the risk of fire.

Ukrainian officials accuse Russia of hiding dozens of military vehicles with an unknown number of bombs and ammunition on the premises of at least two reactors. If a fire breaks out at power transformers and the power grid is brought offline, it could cause a plant cooling system failure and lead to catastrophic failure. Edwin Lymana nuclear energy expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a private group in Cambridge, Mass.

He noted that the loss of coolant in the Fukushima accident in Japan in 2011 resulted in the three reactors undergoing some degree of core decay.

If cooling is interrupted, nuclear fuel can become hot enough to melt within hours, Dr. Lyman said. It can eventually melt through the steel reactor and even the outer containment structure, releasing radioactive material.

According to Ukrainian officials, a shell hit an electrical transformer in reactor 6 at the same time that reactor 1 was impacted. According to Ukrainian officials, it did not explode.

Dr. Lyman said the threat would be reduced in the event of a military attack on the dry fuel storage area next to Zaporizhzhia’s reactors. While spent fuel can still get dangerously hot for many years, it quickly loses much of its radioactivity, making any breach less of a threat – although if damaged hit by a bullet or missile, radioactive particles will be dispersed in the air.

Russian soldiers are holding workers and brutally interrogating them in search of vandals, causing many employees to leave and raising safety concerns, Ukrainian officials say. Ukraine said.

“People are being kidnapped en masse,” said Dmytro Orlov, the exiled mayor of the nearby city of Enerhodar. a meeting last month with officials from Energoatom. “The whereabouts of some of them are still unknown. The rest are in very difficult conditions: They are being tortured and subjected to physical and moral abuse.”

A Ukrainian energy official who discussed the plant’s security issues on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic said that at least 100 employees have been detained in recent weeks. Some of the released people suffered scars from torture and 10 employees were still missing, the official said.

Such claims cannot be independently verified.

Ukrainian officials say the Russians are using the plant as a form of nuclear blackmail and they have fired artillery at the facility to remind the world that they control what happens there. They claim the strikes were directed by officials of Russia’s nuclear agency, Rosatom, who were at the site and have so far been directed against things not deemed essential. for the safe operation of the plant, such as the sewage system.

Russia can also disrupt electricity supplies throughout Ukraine by reducing the flow of energy from the plant to the Ukrainian power grid.

“The Russians understand that energy is a huge tool of power,” R. Scott Kemp, a professor of nuclear science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told The New York Times when the Russians first took control of the plant. “That’s a point of tremendous leverage.”

Imagine a meltdown happened and radioactive material spread out of the factory.

Disaster scenarios with nuclear reactors are often based on local circumstances – how bad the failure is, whether groundwater flows in a particular direction, whether winds are blowing and if so in what direction, and with what magnitude over time, stable or variable?

In terms of power output, six reactors at Zaporizhzhia about the same size as the Chernobyl reactor in 1986 suffered an earthquake and explosion that destroyed the reactor building. In that case, the extremely bad breach and prevailing winds blew clouds of radioactive debris mainly over Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. Lesser numbers have been detected in other parts of Europe.

Even if relatively minor, the consequences of a crisis can involve local pollution, mass evacuations, farm shutdowns and, say Dr. Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists. billions of dollars in cleanup costs.

William J. Broad and Anna Lukinova contributed reporting.

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