Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant crisis raises fears that Chernobyl disaster could happen again | World | News

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Ukraine: Putin ‘could use Zaporizhzhia as a weapon’ says expert

A “major nuclear accident” is feared at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant according to the UN, after the head of the occupied region sent the Kremlin to order the evacuation of 18 nearby towns on Friday.

Involved in the fighting since the start of the war, its last reactor was put on cold shutdown in September, but each is still full of radioactive material which means the risk of a potentially catastrophic leak remains high.

Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said the situation in the region was becoming “increasingly unpredictable and potentially dangerous” in a statement. A long-awaited Ukrainian offensive in the coming weeks is expected to dislodge Moscow’s forces currently in control of the region.

He said: “I am very concerned about the very real risks to nuclear safety and the security of the plant. We must act now to prevent the risk of a serious nuclear accident and the associated consequences for the population and the environment.”

This comes just days after extremely high water levels in the Kakhovsky reservoir threatened to breach its dam and flood the power station on the downstream banks. Europe’s largest power plant is in an extremely precarious position. The parallels with the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine 37 years ago are as obvious as they are frightening.

READ MORE: WW3 fears as Zaporizhzhia nuclear leak could prompt NATO war action

Russian patrol outside Zaporizhzhia

Russian troops have held Zaporizhzhia since March 2022 (Image: GETTY)

Rafael Grossi in 2022

Rafael Grossi of the IAEA warns of an impending catastrophe in Zaporizhzhia back in September 2022 (Image: GETTY)

Nuclear disasters are extremely rare. But one event looms large over the minds of those who monitor the situation within Ukraine and around the world.

In the early hours of April 26, 1986, a reactor exploded at Chernobyl near the city of Prypiat north of the Dnipro River. Due to faulty planning and a series of errors by plant operators about five percent of its radioactive core was spilled into the environment and deposited across much of Europe.

The initial explosion and acute radiation syndrome killed 30 workers at the site, as well as hundreds more firefighters over the following months, and around 350,000 were evacuated from the surrounding area.

While the Chernobyl plant had a capacity of just over 3,500 megawatts, Zaporizhzhia comes in at 5,700 megawatts – more than any other nuclear power station in Europe and the fifth largest in the world.

An aerial view of Chernobyl

The devastation caused by the reactor explosion at Chernobyl (Image: GETTY)

Yevgeny Balitsky, the governor of Russia’s Zaporizhzhia oblast since his seizure last October, said on social media that “in the last few days, the enemy has stopped shelling towns near the front line. So I have decided to evacuate children and parents, the elderly, the disabled and hospital patients first.”

Since Putin’s troops captured the Zaporizhzhia plant in the early days of the offensive, the site’s power has been cut six times. An external electrical supply is essential to ensure that coolant can flow to the reactors, avoiding meltdown.

The last time this happened, in March, Mr Grossi told the IAEA’s governing board that “if we allow this to continue time after time, our luck will one day run out.” We are afraid that this time will be upon us now.

The number of workers at the center has decreased over the past year, but management has maintained that levels have been “sufficient to operate the center safely.”

After the evacuation of Russia Enerhodar – where most of the workers live – the director of the site Yuri Chernichuk said publicly that his crews were staying and doing everything that was necessary to guarantee the safety and security of the station. Mr Grossi said there was “great concern about the increasingly tense, stressful and challenging conditions for workers and their families. “

Nuclear power in Ukraine

Map of nuclear power stations in Ukraine (Image: Express)

Fortunately, most experts agree that an accident with consequences as devastating as Chernobyl is unlikely. This is mainly because Zaporizhzhia is much better laid out.

Unlike the RBMK-1000 reactors used at Chernobyl, Zaporizhzhia – built some 10 years later in the early eighties – employs newer pressurized water reactors, which requires much more vulnerable uranium in the core to run.

Its safety features are also much better. The reactor is surrounded by an outer containment unit of steel-reinforced concrete as well as an inner vessel of 8-inch-thick steel, both of which are resistant to earthquakes and explosions. In case of emergency, the reactors also shut down automatically.

On the other hand, the Chernobyl graphite moderators caught fire and burned for 10 days, the resulting smoke cloud responsible for much of the radiation that found its way into the atmosphere.

Despite these structural improvements and much better security procedures put in place since the Soviet era, there is a risk that a nuclear facility has never faced a military strike.

If a missile took out one of the plant’s backup diesel generators while its grid power was cut, the situation would quickly become critical. The International Nuclear Event Scale has recorded only two top-level events in its history: Chernobyl and Japan’s Fukushima disaster in 2011, which occurred because the tsunami took out its backup generators .

Robin Grimes, a professor of materials physics at Imperial College London, said direct fire on the outside of a reactor could still be fatal. Although an explosion like Chernobyl is unlikely, he said a large amount of toxic material could still be released.

The Kamianka-Dniprovska region in which the plant sits has about 40,000 inhabitants. Less than 10 miles away, just across the Dnipro is the city of Nikopol, home to 100,000 people. They would all have to abandon their homes if a 30-kilometer Exclusion Zone like the one at Chernobyl was to be put in place.

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