Russian-occupied nuclear power plant sliding towards ‘Fukushima scenario’, Ukrainian official says

A motorcade carrying the mission of experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) arrives at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant on September 1, 2022.ALEXANDRE ERMOCHENKO/Reuters

The situation at the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant is sliding towards “the Fukushima scenario”, and the facility will soon be forced to rely solely on backup power sources, says Ukraine’s Minister of Energy Energy, Herman Halushchenko, in an interview.

Mr Halushchenko said the Zaporizhzhia power plant, Europe’s largest nuclear facility, was now operating “like an island”, capable only of self-powering, leaving the nearby town of Enerhodar in the dark as fighting continues in the area. Soon, Halushchenko said, staff at the Zaporizhzhia power plant would be forced to shut down its last operating reactor, Reactor No. 6 – which provides electricity to cool nuclear fuel and other radioactive materials – and to rely on diesel generators to keep power going and prevent a meltdown.

“It’s quite, quite a dangerous situation when the station is only using diesel generators. Of course, we have a very good emergency lifeline electricity system, but the idea of ​​the diesel generators is that they should work for a short period of time and then you should fix the electricity supply,” Halushchenko told the Globe and Mail on Friday at his office in Kyiv.

However, repairing the damage to the station was impossible amid ongoing fighting in the area, Halushchenko said. He said some shells fell on the territory of the nuclear power plant, and several came “close enough” to hit the facility itself.

“The situation is very close to the Fukushima scenario when the electricity supply was cut off and then the diesel generators start working,” he said, referring to the 2011 nuclear disaster in Japan, which was caused by a massive earthquake and tsunami. “After the tsunami [swamped] this generator, the disaster occurred. In this situation, the diesel generator is working but there might be crazy Russian bombardments. And so a mine or a missile or whatever…could shut down the generators and then you have an hour and probably 30 minutes, no more than two hours, before the reaction starts.

Mr. Halushchenko, a former senior official at Energoatom, the state agency that oversees Ukraine’s nuclear power plants, is not the only one trying to sound the alarm about the potentially dire situation in Zaporizhzhia. The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Grossi, said on Friday that the fighting around the plant had “significantly increased the risk of a nuclear accident”. Mr. Grossi visited the Zaporizhzhia plant earlier this month, and the IAEA has two observers based at the facility.

“The shelling endangers operators and their families, making it difficult to adequately staff the plant,” Grossi said in a video statement. “Let’s be clear, the shelling around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant must stop, and a nuclear security safety and protection zone must be agreed immediately.”

Russia and Ukraine blame each other for the bombardment near the Zaporizhzhia plant, which has been under Russian control since March. Mr Halushchenko accused Russia of using the facility as a military base and firing artillery from its territory. Russian forces, he said, often shelled the area around the plant with the apparent aim of destroying the power lines connecting the Zaporizhzhia plant to the Ukrainian power grid.

The Zaporizhzhia plant sits on the war frontline in southern Ukraine, across the Dnipro River from the city of Nikopol, which had a pre-war population of 115,000. .

Halushchenko said the only way to implement the IAEA’s call for a neutral zone around the plant was to demilitarize it and return it to Ukrainian control. “It’s the first precedent in the history of the world when it happens like that, I mean, when a nuclear object is occupied by the military.”

Halushchenko said his office was in daily contact with Ukrainian staff who continue to work inside the Zaporizhzhia plant. He said staff were “exhausted from moral and physical pressure”, increasing the possibility of human error at the facility.

The specter of nuclear disaster is particularly poignant in Ukraine, where many are still haunted by the memory of the 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the north of the country.

The mothballed Chernobyl power plant also briefly fell under Russian occupation at the start of the war. Halushchenko said when he visited the plant shortly after Russian troops withdrew from the facility in April, he was shocked by the Russians’ apparent disregard for basic nuclear security.

He said retreating Russian troops looted the power station, stole computers and other technology before attempting to destroy anything they could not carry. Chernobyl is now back under Ukrainian control and monitored by the IAEA, but Mr Halushchenko said a second disaster may have been averted, he said, only because the Russians did not know what was and was not important for the safety of the installation. “Looks like they didn’t know what to mess up.”

Russian forces had also dug trenches and filled sandbags with extremely radioactive soil from the factory’s territory. Mr. Halushchenko predicted that some of the Russian soldiers who had occupied Chernobyl were either extremely ill now, or soon would be, from the high doses of radiation they would have received.

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