Loss of control?


Even before Russia invaded Ukraine, Beyond Nuclear was one of the first to point out the risks of nuclear reactors embroiled in a war zone. After the February 24 invasion, and as the dangers to Ukraine’s nuclear power plants became ever more evident, media attention focused on what would happen if a reactor was shelled or bombed.

But, as we took pains to point out then, there are other less dramatic factors that could result in the same catastrophic outcome. Two of these — loss of off-site power leading to reliability on tenuous on-site power; and the choice of plant workers to flee the area if it becomes embroiled in the war — have now come to pass.

The 6-reactor Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant is the one closest to the fighting and the local town, Enerhodar, is now reportedly in a total power blackout. Enerhodar is also the hub where most of the plant workers live. Ukraine has called for the area to be evacuated and for potassium-iodide to be distributed, a prophylactic that protects the thyroid from iodine-131, a fast-moving radioactive gas released during a nuclear power plant accident.

Reports are coming in, unsurprisingly, that given these warnings, plant workers are among those choosing to evacuate with their families. But a nuclear power plant cannot be left unattended, especially now when cooling the fuel is of literally critical importance.

The loss of off-site power could also prove fatal as the plant now relies on backup diesel generators to power essential cooling. Fuel supplies for these generators may be in short supply and generators have been known to fail. Both a cease fire and the restoration of power lines are now vital to avoid a nuclear disaster.

Picture of Zaporizhzhia control room by IAEA Imagebank

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