ZAPORIJIA. Since the Russian invasion in Ukraine, the Zaporijia power plant has been at the heart of tensions, several times hit by air strikes. Both sides accuse each other of planning attacks raising the specter of a nuclear disaster. What is the situation there?
The Zaporizhia plant still crystallizes the tensions in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. Volodymyr Zelensky has been accusing Russia for weeks of having mined the six reactors of this important nuclear site. According to the Ukrainian General Staff, "objects similar to explosive devices were placed on the outer roof of reactors 3 and 4. Their detonation should not damage the generators, but give the impression of shelling from the Ukrainian side" . What fuel the fear of a nuclear disaster.
Russia responded by attacking in turn Kiev to prepare a military operation on this site that Russian troops have occupied since March 4, 2022. Renat Karchaa, a member of Rosatom (Russian National Society for Atomic Energy), had predicted an intervention Ukrainian: "On July 5, during the night, in complete darkness, the Ukrainian army will try to attack the nuclear power plant in Zaporizhia." In the end, nothing happened and the week was quiet in this oblast (an administrative division unit that emerged from the USSR).
But other facts do not encourage optimism on the side of the Ukrainian allies. Dmytro Orlov, mayor of the municipality of Enerhodar where the plant is located, believes that some of the Zaporijia personnel have been evacuated to Russian territory. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) wishes to "confirm the absence of mines or explosives on the site". Its managing director, Rafael Grossi, explains that their "experts must be able to verify the facts on the ground independently and objectively". This head of this international agency had already traveled to Zaporija in early June to assess the situation after the destruction of the Kakhovka dam on the Dnieper. However, access to the roofs and certain areas of the cooling system had been refused by the Russian authorities.
An American think tank, the Institute for the Study of War, believes that "Russia remains unlikely to generate a radiological incident at the present time. The reactors were built to withstand considerable damage." Russian movements in this sensitive area would thus be "intended to accuse Ukraine of irresponsibility before the next NATO summit" which is being held from July 11 in Vilnius, Lithuania. China would also have encouraged Russia not to fall into the use of nuclear power in its conflict with Ukraine, as Midi Libre points out. Beijing is Russia's crucial ally, so acting contrary to this advice would be particularly risky for Russia.
The Zaporijia plant, which is none other than the largest in Europe, is of particular concern to local and international authorities. The situation there is tense. Russia and Ukraine accuse each other of strikes on the plant. "What you have to understand is that as long as the Ukrainians don't stop bombing the plant, Ukraine, Russia and Europe will be in great danger. And that's not politics!" , told a leader of Rosatom, the builder of the Russian power plant, to franceinfo. No trace of abnormal radioactivity was found around the Zaporijia power plant. The IAEA wishes to install a permanent presence on the site in order to avoid a nuclear accident.
Several bombings have targeted the nuclear power plant in Zaporizhia or neighboring towns since the start of the war in Ukraine. Moscow and Kiev blame each other for each new strike, but both sides are called upon by the international community and the IAEA to put an end to attacks near the site given the danger that this represents. Since the beginning of the Ukrainian counter-offensive, strikes in the region of the central are daily. But no major attack has targeted the plant. Wanting to destroy Zaporizhia seems foolish for the players in this conflict, but the explosion of the Khakhovka dam illustrates how difficult it is to predict the future of this conflict.
In addition to the bombings that have already hit a radioactive material storage building and a reactor of the plant, the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant was also temporarily disconnected from the electricity grid by Russian troops between August 25 and 26, 2022. The procedure, even temporarily, almost jeopardized the plant since it prevented cooling of the reactors and ran the risk of overheating and therefore of a nuclear accident. The situation returned to normal thanks to a back-up system which took over until the site was connected to the electricity grid. In the following days, the Ukrainian nuclear operator Energoatom warned of risks of radioactive leaks and fires after new strikes. The national company indicated that "the infrastructure of the plant has been damaged and there are risks of hydrogen leakage and spraying of radioactive substances". According to her, it is also necessary to fear a high risk of fire.
The missions of the International Atomic Energy Agency are multiple. They must, initially, make it possible to assess the working conditions of the personnel in the Zaporijia power plant. Composed of fourteen international inspectors from Albania, China, France, Italy, Jordan, Lithuania, North Macedonia, Mexico, Poland and Serbia, the Agency's delegation has a limited mandate . In an interview with the newspaper Le Monde, the director general of the IAEA, Rafael Grossi, detailed his mission. "It aims for the safety and security of the installation, that is to say its normal and unhindered operation", he explained. Thus, after an inventory, the members of the mission were able to repair the essentials and restart the damaged transmission systems. The spent fuel storage pools will also be inspected. Finally, the electricity supply was checked. Indeed, it is essential for cooling reactors in order to avoid a nuclear accident. "I want to believe that our presence on the spot will have an effect if not deterrent, at least real", confided then Rafael Grossi. However, his attempt to place Zaporizhia under international control remained a dead letter with Vladimir Putin who, by decree, nationalized the nuclear complex on October 5, 2022.
The International Atomic Energy Agency confirms that it is worried about the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant and the risks smoldering on the site due to the bombardments. "The installation is working, but with difficulties, so that in the current circumstances the scenario of an accident cannot be excluded. There are continuous interruptions in the electricity supply, problems with spent fuels... An accident makes you go from green to red without transition. So, I am indeed worried", detailed Rafael Mariano Grossi, the director general of the IAEA, in an interview granted to World on August 26, 2022.
The risk of a meltdown accident at the plant's core has become a possibility since the disconnection of the nuclear plant from the electricity grid at the end of August. Electricity is essential to ensure the cooling of the reactors and avoid a nuclear accident and according to the boss of the Ukrainian nuclear, Petro Kotin, 90 minutes without electricity would be sufficient for the temperature of the reactors to become worrying and that a start of fusion is envisaged . Still, the risk is "very unlikely" according to Emmanuelle Galichet, teacher-researcher in nuclear physics at the National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts, contacted by Le Monde on August 31. The important security measures that take into account the presence of twenty emergency generators offer "about a week to ten days of fuel autonomy", enough to allow time to intervene and avoid disaster. The expert also excludes the risk of an explosion or the formation of a radioactive cloud, as was the case during the Fukushima explosion.
According to Emmanuelle Galichet, the risks and accidents most likely to occur mainly concern the storage of radioactive waste. "If the very robust containers in which they are stored were to give way, there will be a dissemination of radioactivity around the storage area", she explains, once again ruling out the hypothesis of a radioactive cloud in the upper atmosphere. For the time being, "no abnormal release of radioactivity" has been noted by research institutes, which are very attentive to the situation.
The Zaporizhia nuclear power plant is located on the banks of the Dnieper River, in the southern part of Ukraine. The site is not in the direct vicinity of the city, but about fifty kilometers as the crow flies to the south-west of the town. It is precisely installed on the territory of the city of Enerhodar.
While Ukraine currently has five nuclear power plants on its territory, that of Zaporijia is the most powerful in Europe.