“The day has come,” Rafael Grossi, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said on Monday, marking the start of his journey to Europe’s largest nuclear power plant which sits on the line. of fire between the Russian occupiers and the Ukrainian forces. .
On Thursday, a group of 14 inspectors led by Grossi arrived at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine, despite concerns about constant shelling in the area.
Since early March, when Russia seized the plant, international and local experts have issued serious warnings, not only for the safety of plant workers, but also for fear of a nuclear disaster that could affect thousands of people in the vicinity.
Here is an overview of the perilous situation at the factory:
Ukraine relies heavily on nuclear power – about half of its electricity comes from 15 nuclear reactors at four power plants across the country, according to the World Nuclear Association.
The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, with six reactors, is the largest nuclear power plant in Europe. It was mainly built during the Soviet era and became Ukrainian property after its declaration of independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Until recently, only two reactors were connected to Ukraine’s national grid and providing electricity, although the units have been taken offline at various times – and for various reasons – since the invasion.
The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant is located on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River in Ukraine. The area and the nuclear complex have been under Russian control since the beginning of the war, but the plant is still mainly operated by Ukrainian workers.
At the start of the invasion, Ukrainian forces prevented Russian forces from capturing a second nuclear facility – the Southern Ukraine Nuclear Power Plant – and forced them to retreat to Dnipro, according to Petro Kotin, chairman of Energoatom , which operates nuclear power plants in Ukraine. . The front line hasn’t moved much for months.
Each of Zaporizhzhia’s reactors would cost $7 billion to replace, making the plant a target for the Russians to capture intact, hoping to serve its own electricity market, according to an analysis by the defense intelligence firm and Safety Janes. If Russia kept it, Ukraine would lose 20% of its national electricity production capacity.
Shelling in surrounding towns as well as near the power station is common, according to local reports.
Ukraine has accused Russian forces of stockpiling weapons and launching attacks from the plant, knowing that Ukraine cannot retaliate without risking hitting the nuclear facility. Russia in turn claims that Ukrainian forces are targeting the site.
The international community is on nuclear security alert, but experts say a Chernobyl-like disaster is unlikely. The plant is equipped with modern safety systems, which means that even if its maintenance were neglected or if a major military action caused serious damage, the result would be most comparable to the Fukushima nuclear disaster – which was contained locally, according to Janes and Energoatom. .
Still, risks remain, one of which is the potential damage to nuclear waste stored in the open at the site – in water ponds and in drums, according to Energoatom’s Kotin.
Kotin also warned that Russian attempts to switch the plant from the Ukrainian power grid to the Russian power grid would require disconnecting all reactors from the supply for a period of time, relying on emergency power generation that does not will ever fail – a “very dangerous” prospect, he told CNN. in an August 22 interview.
The plant’s main exclusion safety zone, where the reactors and nuclear fuel are located, is surrounded by the waters of the Dnipro to the northwest and the town of Enerhodar to the east.
The satellite image below highlights the factory facilities, which have been vital to the timeline of events since the start of the war. They show how the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant narrowly avoided a nuclear disaster.
Main developments of the factory since the beginning of the war
March 4, 2022
Russian troops take control of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, with operators working at gunpoint, according to Ukrainian nuclear officials. Russian bombing damages buildings around a nuclear reactor and Ukrainian authorities say a fire broke out at a training center outside the main site. The UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), condemns the move.
Smoke rises from the administrative buildings of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant on March 5, 2022. (IAEA/Energoatom via Telegram)
UN and Ukrainian nuclear regulators are losing reliable lines of communication with plant workers as Russia shuts down some mobile and internet networks at the plant.
Two of the plant’s six reactors are active. Meanwhile, the front line – along the Dnipro River on which the factory sits – has moved little since early March. Kyiv has repeatedly accused Russian forces of stockpiling heavy weapons inside the compound and using them as cover to launch attacks.
The Russian army patrols the territory of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant on May 1. (Andrey Borodulin/AFP/Getty Images)
At least four people were injured by explosions amid protests against the Russian occupation in Enerhodar, the town closest to the Zaporizhzhia plant.
Gunfire and explosions disperse a crowd in Enerhodar, Ukraine on April 2. (from Telegram)
Two guided missiles hit the town of Zaporizhzhia, less than 40 miles northeast of the plant. Energoatom claims the missiles flew low directly over the site of the nuclear power plant. This is one of many local reports of hostilities near the plant.
A column of smoke rises from behind a residential building after missile strikes in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, on April 26. (Albert Koshelev/Ukrinform/Future Publishing/Getty Images)
The head of the UN nuclear watchdog, Rafael Grossi, said he was determined to send a mission of IAEA experts to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant to assess the safety of operations and working conditions . The IAEA spent weeks negotiating a trip with Ukraine and Russia.
A Ukrainian drone attack targets a complex of Russian tents inside the factory’s main security exclusion zone, including a parked BM-21 “Grad” rocket launcher. The attack caused a fire but did not damage the reactors or fuel storage areas.
Smoke rises as soldiers exit tents at the main site of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Enerhodar, Ukraine. (Ukrainian Defense Intelligence)
Explosions reported near an electrical panel caused the temporary shutdown of a reactor, the IAEA said. Separately, rockets hit about 30 to 60 feet from a dry storage facility containing spent nuclear fuel drums, according to Energoatom. Ukraine and Russia continue to accuse each other of bombing the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in early August.
A rocket fragment is seen near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in territory under Russian military control, according to a still from a video released by the Russian Defense Ministry’s press service on August 7. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service/AP)
IAEA chief Rafael Grossi told the UN Security Council that the situation had “deteriorated rapidly to the point of being very alarming”. The representative of Ukraine accuses Russia of using “unjustified manipulations and conditions for the visit to the site”, despite public declarations of cooperation.
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Grossi addresses the United Nations Security Council via video conference August 11 at UN headquarters. (Mary Altaffer/AP)
Ukrainian authorities said the Ukrainian-controlled towns of Nikopol and Marhanets, across the Dnipro River from the plant, were attacked by Russian rocket fire for several consecutive nights.
The bombings damaged laboratories and chemical facilities inside the main plant complex and caused a temporary power cut to a nearby backup thermal power plant, according to the IAEA, citing Ukrainian officials.
According to Kyiv, since March three Ukrainian workers have been killed by the Russian military and at least 26 others have been arrested for leaking information.
Ukraine informs the IAEA that a power outage has disconnected all six reactors from the national grid for the first time in the plant’s history after the last remaining power line was damaged. By August 27, it had been repaired.
A satellite image shows the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and nearby fires at Enerhodar on August 24. (European Union/Copernicus Sentinel-2 imagery/Reuters)
Around August 28
Authorities in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia make iodine tablets available to residents amid growing concern over a possible nuclear accident: The pills protect users from radioactive iodine and help prevent thyroid cancer.
Residents of Zaporizhzhia line up at the local administration office to receive iodine tablets in Khortytskyi district, east of the city, on August 29. (Dmytro Smolienko/Reuters)
After striking a hard-fought deal with Ukrainian and Russian officials, a group of 14 international nuclear inspectors, including IAEA chief Rafael Grossi, arrive at the plant after a dangerous journey. Hours earlier, Energoatom had accused Russia of bombing the plant, which had shut down the fifth reactor and activated its emergency protection system.
International Atomic Energy Agency and United Nations personnel prepare to depart for Zaporizhzhia from a hotel in Kyiv, Ukraine, on August 31. (David Ryder/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Source: IAEA, UN, The Institute for the Study of War with AEI’s Critical Threats Project, Janes, Energoatom, Ukraine’s State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate, Ukraine’s State Emergency Services, Defense Intelligence of Ukraine, Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights, Ukrainian regional authorities.
Reporting and writing: CNN staff and Henrik Pettersson
Digital design and graphics: Natalie Croker and Byron Manley
Photo editor: Clint Alwahab
Publishers: Anna Brand, Nick Thompson and Eve Bower