Explained: How Zaporizhzhia plant can become a nuclear flashpoint in Russia-Ukraine war

Operations at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant (NPP) were suspended on Sunday (May 7) as Moscow claimed Kyiv had threatened action as part of its counteroffensive to reclaim Russian-held territory. Since then, anxiety regarding the safety of the plant has reached an all-time high, perhaps breaching the peak of last year when it was captured in the infancy of the war and subjected to intense damage. 

Approximately 3,000 people, including around 1,000 minors have been evacuated from villages close to the front line. According to Yevgeny Balitsky, the Moscow-installed governor of the Russia-controlled part of the region, Kyiv has been plotting to take control of the plant.  

“We’ve seen the level (of water in the nearby Kakhovka Reservoir) rise to 17.08 (metres). We realise that this is manipulation. The nuclear reactors have been suspended,” Balitsky was quoted as saying by TASS. 

Russian forces took over the Zaporizhzhia NPP, the biggest plant in Europe soon after it announced the invasion of Ukraine on February 24 last year. By March 3, the plant was firmly in the control of Russians but there lay a problem. 

Those who had commandeered the plant did not have the know-how to run the operations. Up until 2014, Ukrainian NPPs used Russian nuclear fuel but now they utilise American-designed fuel produced by Westinghouse. Moreover, the control command of the Ukrainian plants have been remodelled to ape those of modern, sophisticated Western NPPs – a marked departure from the Soviet-era style. 

Thus, Ukrainian technicians were allowed to remain, at times under extreme duress, after a few were killed to ascertain the hierarchy of order. Since then, the troops from Moscow have turned the facility into a garrison of sorts – using the nuclear storage rooms to hold ammunition while putting the plant’s safety in jeopardy. 

Nuclear plant’s safety on the line

The plant has six reactors, which can together produce about 5,700 MW of electricity. It is the biggest source of energy for the former Soviet Union country and caters to about half of its power demand. However, maintaining a nuclear plant, that too safely, requires a series of operations to fall in place.

Nuclear plants have to depend on external electricity for a variety of needs, including the operation of water pumping systems to keep the reactors cool. If anything in the delicate system goes off, the situation can turn pear-shaped rather quickly. Even though the six reactors have been shut down, the plant is still at risk as nuclear fuel and radioactive materials, including liquids remain in the compound. 

Despite both sides understanding the perils of toying with nuclear energy, the plant has remained an unforgotten collateral of the war. Shelling from both sides last year threatened to damage the plant’s structural integrity. While Ukraine fires from the Russian side of the lines, Moscow hurls projectiles from Ukrainian-held communities across the Dnieper River

Ukraine already has the blot of Chernobyl on it and another nuclear disaster, that too in the largest nuclear plant of the continent could wreak damage on a scale hitherto unseen. 

In the event of an unlikely explosion, the repercussions could be widespread. Firstly, the evacuation attempts will be a race against time to escape the invisible radioactive cloud. Even if somehow one manages to escape it, the effect of a radiation leak can be felt for years to come. Due to the plant’s geographic location, a radiation release could hit any part of the European continent

While the radiation will cause long-term harm to Europe, the short-term effects will be even more dastardly – economically and socially. There will be no export of electricity to the European Union (EU) and the region, which is already huffing and puffing due to Russian gas undersupply might go into a freefall. 

Though highly unlikely, experts are also concerned that nuclear terrorism might come into play if push comes to shove. 

“The general situation in the area near the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant is becoming increasingly unpredictable and potentially dangerous,” said the IAEA chief, adding that he’s concerned. 

Buildings in the nuclear plant have suffered damage and the situation threatens a catastrophic nuclear accident. Russia and Ukraine have blamed each other for the shelling.

Take the fight away from the plant: Agencies

The United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency have been pushing for a protection zone to be set up to prevent further damage to the plant. According to an NYT report, the area where spent nuclear fuel is stored sustained damage last year and it is unclear what is the current situation. 

“The general situation in the area near the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant is becoming increasingly unpredictable and potentially dangerous,” said Rafael Grossi, IAEA chief, adding that he’s concerned. 

“I’m extremely concerned about the very real nuclear safety and security risks facing the plant.” 

The evacuation of villagers from around the plant points toward the lull before the storm. Ukraine might be gearing up to seize the initiative and counter Russia but the plant’s safety might be the price to pay for it, which would be incredibly expensive.   

If the plant suffers any more damage, it could potentially open up nuclear faultlines. The effects could be cascading and the countries around could easily be plunged into a World War III-like crisis. 

(With inputs from agencies)

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