The UN has called for international inspectors to be given access to the nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, after it was shelled at the weekend. But how dangerous is the situation and what is likely to happen next?
Why is the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant important?
The plant, built in the Soviet era, is the largest nuclear reactor in Europe. Its six pressurised water reactors (of which at least two are currently operating) are important to Kyiv as they can produce power for up to 4m homes.
Situated on the south bank of the Dnieper river at Enerhodar, south-west of the city of Zaporizhzhia itself, the plant occupies an extremely important strategic position both for Russian and Ukrainian forces, who have been contesting control of the site since early in the war.
The presence of the water-cooled reactors, as well as a spent fuel storage facility, on the large and sprawling site has led Russia to use it as a so called “sheltered” artillery park, using the facilities to fire on Ukrainian positions in the belief that Ukraine would not fire back and risk a nuclear accident.
The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has accused the Russians of using the plant as a “nuclear shield” saying: “Of course the Ukrainians cannot fire back lest there be a terrible accident involving the nuclear plant.” That has allowed Russia to target areas like the city of Nikopol across the river which has come under heavy shelling in recent weeks.
Why is there renewed concern?
There are two issues fuelling a deepening anxiety over the situation at the plant, which is under Russian control but uses Ukrainian staff. International nuclear safety officials have become concerned over the lack of spare parts, access for routine maintenance of the reactors and lack of contact with staff all of which have been disrupted by the ongoing conflict.
A second issue is grad missile fire around the plant at the weekend, with Russians and Ukrainians pointing the finger over responsibility. According to Energoatom – the Ukrainian nuclear authority – the impacts were close to the spent fuel storage area with the operator claiming Russian troops “aimed specifically” at the containers despite the presence of Russian troops at the site.
However, it is worth noting that Ukrainian officials at times have somewhat overstated claims about nuclear risks posed by the conflict both at Chornobyl and Zaporizhzhia – so for now it is not clear how dangerous this weekend’s incident was in and of itself.
While Ukraine’s objective – to see the plant treated as a demilitarised area – is an entirely prudent call it would also serve a military objective by denying Russian forces the use of a plant from which they can shell with relative impunity.
A final dimension is a claim by Ukrainian intelligence – reported in Ukrainian media outlets – that Russia has mined facilities, quoting the head of the radiation, chemical and biological defence troops of the Russian armed forces, Maj Gen Valery Vasiliev, who now commands the Zaporizhzhia garrison, saying: “There will be either Russian land or a scorched desert.”
However, a major and deliberate detonation in Zaporizhzhia would threaten southern Russia as well as Ukraine with nuclear contamination, so it is important to distinguish between “nuclear blackmail” and a serious threat that would have repercussions for Russia itself.
So how dangerous is shelling around the plant?
The reactors are designed to withstand substantial impact – think of a civilian airliner crashing into them – protected with steel and reinforced concrete as well as fire protection systems, although a strike from a substantial missile might be more problematic.
The buildings housing the spent fuel, however, are not built with a similar level of protection, meaning that a release of spent fuel material is probably a greater risk from fighting than a catastrophic breach of a reactor, although more limited.
The reality is that the situation at the plant in terms of safety operations is probably the most serious issue, as a deteriorating safety regime caused by the conflict has been exacerbated by a risk of a strike.
The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Mariano Grossi, described the ongoing crisis of safety oversight as a dire threat to public health and the environment in Ukraine, and far beyond its borders, describing the situation as “completely out of control.”
“You have a catalogue of things that should never be happening in any nuclear facility,” he said. While Grossi has suggested a mission to the plant, ironically Ukraine has been blocking the initiative, with Energoatom arguing as recently as June that any visit would legitimise Russia’s presence there.