Putin’s shelling of the area around the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power reactor in Ukraine raises an additional question about the safety of such reactors. Depending on the severity of the destruction from bombing or artillery shelling, there is a possibility of a release of radiation from almost any reactor.
There are two approaches to solving this problem. One is to make reactors safer by building them with more safety features to contain and radiation release. Another is to negotiate agreements not to attack nuclear power plants, raising such attacks to the level of using nuclear weapons in a war. The UN has published a report on the dangers Russian control of the Ukrainian nuclear power reactor. According to the report:
“In a statement released by the IAEA, [International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Rafael] Grossi said he had been informed by Ukrainian authorities that, although regular staff continue to operate the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant, any action of plant management – including measures related to the technical operation of the six reactor units – requires prior approval by the Russian commander of the Russian forces that took control of the site last week.”
The report listed several dangers associated with the war in Ukraine:
- Ukraine gave up its rights to nuclear weapons following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and all the nuclear weaponry on its territory was removed by June 1996. However, the country retained the right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, and some 114 enterprises are believed to have nuclear materials of some kind, including four nuclear power plants (NPPs).
- The military conflict in Ukraine is the first to take place on the territory of a country with large nuclear facilities. On Thursday night, Zaporizhzhia NPP, the largest and most powerful in Europe, was shelled, raising fears of an explosion, and radiation leaks.
- Memories of the Chernobyl disaster, which occurred on April 26, 1986, have also been revived: Chernobyl was one of the most serious nuclear incidents in human history, and led to a radioactive plume covering a large part of north-eastern Europe.
- Thursday’s attack on Zaporizhzhia saw shells hitting a training complex near the nuclear reactors. No radioactive material was released, and the plant’s safety systems were not compromised.
- However, an accident or explosion at Zaporizhzhia, which is far bigger than Chernobyl, could lead to far more serious consequences than the 1986 incident. This could result from fresh attacks, or even a loss of electricity. The latter situation could prevent the reactor cooling system from working, and lead to an explosion (this was the cause of the Chernobyl disaster).