The Game of Nuclear Chicken in Zaporozhye
THE Zaporozhye (also spelt as Zaporizhzhia) Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) has become a focal point in the Ukraine war, as any major nuclear incident there risks the release of radioactivity over a vast area. In such an accident, not only Ukraine but large parts of Europe could face radioactive contamination and much higher rates of cancer and other diseases. Russia has claimed that the Ukrainian side has shelled the Zaporozhye plant in July and in August and has submitted photographic and other documentary evidence to the UN Security Council on August 23, 2022 . Ukraine contends that Russia has been shelling the plant, even though it is under Russia’s occupation.
The Zaporozhye plant, located in the town of Enerhodar, is the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, with six units of 1,000 MW capacity. They are Pressurized Water Reactors (PWR) and are of Soviet vintage: the oldest unit was commissioned 37 years and the newest 26 years ago. Before the war, they used to supply 20 per cent of Ukraine’s electricity. And even after Russia captured Zaporozhye in March this year, it has been continuing its supply to the Ukrainian grid.
Before we look at the risks of a major nuclear incident on the scale of Chernobyl or Fukushima, let us take a quick look at the Ukrainian claims regarding the Russian shelling of the plant and positioning of heavy artillery and other equipment inside it. It defies logic why a plant, by all accounts under the control of the Russians, would be shelled by the Russians themselves? All the evidence so far supports Russia’s claims that it is Ukraine who shelled the plant(As this article was being written there are reports that the plant and transmission lines were shelled). And if Russia has indeed positioned heavy military equipment within the plant as claimed by Ukraine, in the age of satellite imagery, it should be a simple matter for either Ukraine or its NATO allies to make public such evidence. That they have not itself, speaks volumes.
It is understandable that in a war, the Ukrainian side would make such propaganda claims. What is interesting is that major news organisations such as Reuters, AP, New York Times, Washington Post and others have all echoed the Kiev government’s line without even a simple fact or plausibility check. In all such reporting, the Kiev statements of Russia occupying the Zaporozhye plant and shelling it themselves are faithfully carried as if they are the gospel truth. The big media in the West appears to be very much a part of the Orwellian Ministry of Truth and the information war over Ukraine.
WHAT ARE THE RISKS OF A MAJOR NUCLEAR INCIDENT IN ZAPOROZHYE NPP?
The six reactor buildings have robust containment domes and are well protected against artillery shells or even rocket strikes. It would require bunker busters or equivalent explosives to breach the containment of the reactors. Any accident would lead to a shutdown of the reactor. The risk in a running nuclear plant is that even if it has been shut down, it requires continuous cooling. The cooling pumps require auxiliary power that normally comes from the grid. In an emergency, such auxiliary power can also be supplied by diesel generating sets. But diesel generating sets are only a temporary stopgap measure.
Without the cooling pumps, the residual radioactivity in the nuclear core will cause continuous heating and rising temperature. If cooling cannot be restored, it will reach a temperature causing a core meltdown and to the large-scale release of radioactivity. A core meltdown is classified as a Level 7 accident, the highest on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale. Only Chernobyl and Fukushima have been classified as Level 7 incidents. The Three Mile Island nuclear plant was only 30 minutes away from a full core meltdown and a Level 7 incident.
Why is the cooling of the core so important in a nuclear plant? The core of the reactor is where controlled nuclear fission takes place, releasing heat. This heat is what converts steam to drive turbogenerators and produce electricity. The fission of the uranium fuel—breaking up of the uranium fuel— to other highly radioactive materials will continue to produce heat even after a reactor is shut down. As some of them have short half-lives, the reactor slowly cools once it has been shut down, but in this period, it still needs to keep the cooling systems running; therefore, the importance of auxiliary power for the cooling pumps.
In the Fukushima Daichi plant, due to the failure of the grid in the earthquake-tsunami that had hit Japan, the plant lost all auxiliary power. Three of the reactors overheated, leading to their core meltdown. The consequence has been that not only was radioactivity released into the atmosphere but a huge amount of radioactive water has been discharged into the Pacific Ocean with unknown consequences for fish and other marine life. Since marine products also enter our food chain, the consequences of the Fukushima disaster will continue for a long time.
Though Chernobyl had a much more significant immediate impact, this was a man-made disaster. The reactor was being tested under extremely low power conditions bypassing all protection. This was the hubris of the engineers running the plant and is unlikely to be repeated. In the Three Mile Island accident, the auxiliary cooling water pumps were manually switched off as the operating staff completely misunderstood the conditions within the reactor core. Only a new shift coming in and diagnosing the actual event taking place led to narrowly averting what would have been another Level 7 nuclear event.
The auxiliary equipment is not within the reactor containment structures and is therefore vulnerable to shelling and bombing of the facilities. One of the shelling incidents in Zaporozhye caused damage to the auxiliary equipment, though not to the ones that would affect the reactor cooling systems. If the auxiliary power system fails, the reactors will lose their cooling system, leading to a possible core meltdown. Though DG sets can provide backup power for some time, they cannot indefinitely support the cooling systems.
The other risk to the plant comes from the cooling water ponds, which store spent fuel rods immersed in water. The spent fuel rods have residual radioactivity and therefore need to be stored in cooling water for an extended period for the radioactive decay to take place and the heat to be carried away. Any shelling that hits the cooling ponds can lead to a significant release of radioactivity.
Why would Ukraine risk such an event, as it would also be one of the countries badly affected by a Fukushima or a Chernobyl level accident? It appears that the trigger for this course of action was Russia stating that they would connect the Zaporozhye plant to the Russian grid and disconnect from the Ukraine one. The shelling of Zaporozhye started at almost the same time. Escalating the risk to the plant, leading to an international outcry and now an International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) inspection, is one way of maintaining the status quo and, therefore, the supply of electricity from the plant to Ukraine.
Here is the irony of the Ukraine War. While Ukraine and its NATO allies have imposed various sanctions on Russia, Ukraine was getting natural gas supplies from Russia and electricity from the Zaporozhye plant. With Ukraine’s industrial consumption plummeting and the loss of 20 per cent of its territory, its electricity consumption has also been reduced. Consequently, it sold about 100 MW of electricity to the European Union (EU). With the price of electricity recently shooting up in the EU by six to eight times, if Russia disconnects Zaporozhye from the Ukraine grid, Ukraine will lose both electricity and money. Therefore, the game of nuclear chicken—who will back off first from a possible disaster—that the Zelensky regime is playing with the Zaporozhye nuclear plant.
The problem for Russia is that internationalising the shelling of the Zaporozhye plant risks the IAEA and the UN playing a role in the plant. The UN secretary general, António Guterres appears more the voice of the West than the head of the UN. Similarly, IAEA is again very much under the influence of the West, as we saw earlier in the Iraq war and its role in Iran. Though Russia has been asking for an IAEA inspection of the Zaporozhye plant for quite some time, IAEA has argued that the inspection has to take place only through Kiev-controlled territory, and the plant and its surrounding area should be demilitarized. If the task of the IAEA is nuclear safety, that should have priority over what are clearly political demands emanating from Kiev and its NATO allies. However, it is now reported that now IAEA led team will be reaching the plant by the end of this week.
While the politics being played in the UN Security Council and IAEA can be understood in terms of the narrow interests of the players, should not the demand for the safety of a nuclear plant override such considerations? Should not European Union countries, who would also be hit by a Chernobyl or a Fukushima level disaster, think about the interest of their people as well? Or is weakening Russia more important than the safety of their people?
The problem in the world today is that every country seems to see foreign policy in terms of its narrow self-interest. What we lack is the moral compass that the non-aligned movement with leaders like Nehru, Nasser, Nkrumah and Sukarno brought to the world. This is what we badly miss today: a voice of reason to speak up for humanity.
Only two lines to add. One is that post this article, the power transmission from the plant was disrupted by shelling. It can be clubbed with the plant being shelled to read as the plant and the transmission lines being shelled.