Since Russia invaded Ukraine, the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant has been controversial and is still on the world's agenda. From its inception to today, the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant has been the largest nuclear power plant in Europe and the ninth largest in the world. Located on the eastern bank of the Dnieper River, about 550 km southeast of Kyiv, the plant was built between 1984 and 1995. It has been modernized and renovated over the last two decades with the support of European Union funds. The final phase of the renovation program was scheduled to be completed this year but could not be completed due to the Russian occupation.
The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant has six nuclear reactors, and when they are operational, it can generate 5.7 GW of energy, enough to power around 4 million Ukrainians. The plant supplies more than 20% of Ukraine's electricity needs. The nuclear power plant has six Soviet-designed VVER-1000 V-320 water-cooled, water-moderated reactors containing Uranium 235 with a half-life of more than 700 million years. According to the Nuclear Energy Agency, as of July 22, only two of the reactors were operating, and these two reactors are crucial for Ukraine's power grid. Rumors heighten security concerns that Russian troops have taken control of the site since the invasion began, stationing military vehicles inside the turbine halls and preparing a risky plan to disconnect it from Ukraine's grid. Ukrainian workers operate the power plant in the region, which was captured by the Russian army in the early days of the war. The working conditions and the working environment to which Ukrainian personnel is exposed are not safe. It is known that about 9,000 of the 11,000 personnel working at the plant since the occupation of the region have stayed to ensure the safe operation of the reactors, risking detentions, attacks, and many other dangers imposed by the Russians. Petro Kotin, the head of Energoatom, noted that one worker at the plant had been beaten to death, another was severely assaulted and hospitalized for three months, and around 200 workers had been detained. He also said that although the plant was a Soviet design, Russian engineers were unfamiliar with updates to the system, making it unlikely that they would be able to operate it.
The frequent bombing of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in recent days and the fact that it is in the midst of war brings to mind a series of disasters and, of course, the Chernobyl accident of 1986. While Russia and Ukraine blame each other for the bombings, on August 25, fires at a coal-fired power plant near the last power line connecting the plant to the grid caused the grid to be disconnected twice. It was the first time the plant, which has been in operation for nearly 40 years, was disconnected from the national grid. Zelenski said Russian shelling had disconnected the 750 kV power line of the reactor complex, Europe's largest facility. He said backup diesel generators provided a vital power supply for cooling and safety systems at the plant and thanked the Ukrainian technicians operating the plant. The US has called for the plant to be shut down, while UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called for the area surrounding the reactor complex to be demilitarized. Europe narrowly avoided a nuclear disaster. A nuclear accident could spread radiation across the continent. Experts warn of the risk of damage to the plant's spent nuclear fuel pools or reactors. The reactors' most significant threat comes from a water supply drop. Pressurized water is used to remove heat from the reactor and slow down neutrons, allowing the chain reaction of uranium 235 to continue. If the water is cut off and auxiliary systems such as diesel generators cannot keep the reactor cool due to a possible attack, the nuclear reaction will slow down, and the reactor will heat up rapidly. At such high temperatures, hydrogen could be released from the zirconium cladding, and the reactor could begin melting. But experts say the building housing the reactors are designed to contain radiation and withstand significant impacts, so the risk of a major leak is still limited. Paul Bracken, a Yale School of Management professor, said a radiation leak could potentially spread radiation over a large area, as happened in the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl reactor. He noted that failure at the plant could kill hundreds or thousands of people and cause environmental damage over a much wider area, stretching as far as Europe.
Moreover, the head of Energoatom noted that Russian engineers were drawing up a plan to permanently disconnect the plant from the national grid and connect it to the Russian power grid instead. A similar grid outage occurred in early September, prompting fears in Ukraine that Russia could deliberately cut the lines. In early September, a team of experts led by the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) traveled to the plant for a safety audit to clarify claims about the plant's condition, operation, and damage. Their reportstates that damage has already occurred in parts of the plant. That continued bombardment could lead to worse consequences, including releasing radioactive materials into the environment. Exposure to very high radiation levels can cause skin burns, nausea, vomiting, and sometimes death in the short term, while in the long term, it can cause cancer and cardiovascular disease, it said. The report also called for interim measures to prevent a nuclear accident caused by physical damage caused by military vehicles, including the creation of a safety zone around the plant. The report also emphasized the need to improve working conditions for Ukrainian workers, warning that the current situation is not sustainable and could increase the likelihood of mistakes by personnel with an impact on nuclear safety.
By the end of September, Putin announced the formal annexation of four Ukrainian regions, including Zaporizhia, and publicized them as four new regions of the Russian Federation. While Putin was making these announcements, Energoatom announced that Murashov, the head of the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant, had been arrested by Russian forces while traveling from the nuclear plant to a nearby town. Murashov was released within days after the International Atomic Energy Agency said that his detention jeopardized the safe operation of the plant. Another event in the region, where tensions have been increasing, was caused by the fact that the power plant is located in one of the regions that Putin has declared annexed. Earlier this month, Putin ordered the complete takeover of the plant and declared that it now belongs to Russia. In response, Ukraine and the International Atomic Energy Agency said the plant belongs to Ukraine. This was followed by four days of Russian bombardment of the country's energy infrastructure, which resulted in the plant losing all external power and running on emergency diesel generators. Ukrainian Energy Minister Herman Halushchenko reported in an interview that Ukraine has been under heavy Russian missile attack since October 10 and that 30% of the country's energy infrastructure has been damaged. Following repair work, including the connection of the power plant to the Ukrainian grid, it is known that the power grid has stabilized for the time being.
Last month, the IAEA called for establishing a nuclear safety and security zone around the facility, but no such area exists for now. The escalation of tensions following Russia's annexation announcements is a testament to the limited powers of international organizations and nuclear watchdogs. It is not possible to take over the plant from Ukrainian personnel, which means that observers can only carry out limited inspections. The ongoing conflict is turning the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant into a ticking time bomb. Ukraine has demanded the evacuation of the Russian-occupied territory. Still, the world has yet to find a sustainable solution to this situation, which is the first time the world has witnessed a military conflict between the facilities of a large and established nuclear energy program.