One step away from a nuclear disaster. Why did Russia seize the largest nuclear power plant in Europe?

On the night of March 4, Russian troops fired at the Zaporizhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP). This is an unprecedented event: No country in the world has attacked nuclear power plants before.

Now, the nuclear power plant is occupied, and the entire team of the power plant works at a gunpoint.

Here is a brief explanation of what makes this NPP unique, why Putin needs it, and what catastrophe this attack may entail.

1. What is unique about ZNPP?

It is the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, with six units with a total capacity of 6,000 MW. Only Japan, China, South Korea and Canada have more powerful nuclear power plants. The station is located in the Zaporizhia region in a steppe area on the shores of the Kakhovka Reservoir. The satellite city is Energodar, with over 50,000 residents.

ZNPP uses second-generation WWER-1000 nuclear reactors (project B-320).  They are fundamentally different from the RBMK reactors which worked at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant, as they are more reliable. Of the six units, only two are currently operational: one is under repair and the other three have been shut down.

2. How was ZNPP captured and what is happening there now?

On March 2, Russian troops tried to enter Energodar, but unarmed citizens stopped a column of occupiers’ equipment at the entrance. The next day, the Russians fired on civilians and broke into the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant territory. During the capture of the station and the battle with the National Guard, the occupiers hit Unit 1, but this did not affect the security of the unit. They also fired on one of the buildings of the training complex, resulting in a fire, and on a technological overpass.

Immediately after the capture of the power plant, employees were unable to make a planned examination to check for critical damage to the system. 

For almost a week now, the station’s workers have been under the barrels of Russian military machine guns. And yesterday, the Ministry of Energy of Ukraine announced that ZNPP employees are being tortured.

Currently, about 50 units of heavy equipment, ammunition and explosives and at least 400 occupiers are stationed on the territory of ZNPP.

3. Why did Putin seize a nuclear power plant?

Russia is now looking for reasons to justify its invasion of Ukraine. One version of the Russian propaganda goes like this: Ukraine has begun to develop nuclear weapons that could pose a serious threat to Russia. Even before the invasion, Putin said that Ukraine had Soviet nuclear technology and carriers to deliver such weapons. And during the battles for Kharkiv, Russian propaganda reported that nationalists had mined a nuclear reactor at the Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology. And then the Russians from fired on the same institute from “grad.”

During the invasion, the Russian occupiers first seized the Chornobyl nuclear power plant and other nuclear facilities in the exclusion zone: a sarcophagus above the fourth power unit, three spent nuclear fuel storage facilities. A few days later, the Russians also captured the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant. These are strategic nuclear facilities that no one would dare to release using military equipment. This means that the seized nuclear power plants and nuclear facilities can be used to blackmail Ukraine and the whole world.

It is also possible that Russia seeks to falsify evidence that Ukraine has indeed worked to develop nuclear weapons. However, IAEA chief Rafael Grossi said that there is no information that would call into question Ukraine’s compliance with its obligations regarding nuclear weapons.

4. Why does the seizure of a nuclear power plant threaten a potential nuclear catastrophe?

If there had been an accident on the day of the seizure, a radioactive cloud in the direction of the wind would have covered even the capital of Kazakhstan, Nursultan, which is 3,000 kilometres from Energodar, within 48 hours. These are the results of modelling of Ukraine’s State Scientific and Technical Centre for Nuclear and Radiation Safety and the Norwegian Nuclear Safety Agency.

During the capture of the Zaporizhia NPP, the occupiers fired on the first unit of the NPP. At that time, there was no fuel in the core, but it remains in the station holding pools. In addition, as a result of the shelling, the occupiers went into the spent nuclear fuel storage facility. Therefore, the serious threat remains, and there is currently no possibility to assess the losses and risks.

Currently, the staff of the Zaporizhia NPP is being held captive by the Russian military, which significantly limits their ability to work. In addition, it is a huge psychological pressure. In such conditions, one human error can lead to tragedy.

In addition, there is information that not only the occupiers came into the ZNPP. They brought Rosatom specialists with them. Why? Why frighten the world by blowing up nuclear power plants if Rosatom employees can provoke a reactor accident with the release of radionuclides into the atmosphere.

5. What does the world say and what can be done?

The shelling and seizure of a functioning nuclear power plant is an unprecedented crime. This is especially disturbing for such a crime to be committed by an IAEA member state.

Immediately after the capture of the ZNPP, IAEA Director General Mariano Grossi called for an immediate end to the use of weapons in the immediate vicinity of nuclear reactors, and the United Kingdom convened an emergency UN Security Council meeting. The US Embassy in Ukraine has called the shelling and seizure of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant a war crime and another step towards terror.

During talks with the Russians, Ukraine proposed creating a 30-kilometre conflict-free zone around all nuclear facilities. And the whole world should care because a direct hit by a projectile on Zaporizhia or Pivdennoukrainska NPP could actually destroy Europe. Pressure on the staff currently working at the Chornobyl or Energodar stations could lead to a fatal error that will cost not only Ukrainians but also the entire Europe their lives.

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