Fighting in Ukraine endangers large nuclear power plant

Russia and Ukraine have accused each other of shelling Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, stoking international fears of a catastrophe on the continent. A look at the facility and the situation around it:


The Zaporizhzhia plant is located in southern Ukraine, near the town of Enerhodar on the banks of the Dnieper River. It is one of the 10 largest nuclear power plants in the world.

It was built in Soviet times and has six reactors with a total output of 5,700 megawatts. Three of the reactors are in operation.

Before the war, the plant accounted for about half of Ukraine’s nuclear-generated electricity. The country has 15 reactors in four active plants and is also home to the decommissioned Chernobyl plant, site of the 1986 nuclear disaster.


Russian troops overran the plant shortly after invading Ukraine on February 24.

During fighting in early March, Russian and Ukrainian forces exchanged gunfire near the plant. The skirmishes resulted in a fire at his training complex.


The Russians have left Ukrainian personnel in place to keep the plant running, and it has continued to provide power to government-controlled parts of Ukraine.

Fighting around the plant has fueled fears of a disaster like that at Chernobyl, where a reactor exploded and spewed deadly radiation, contaminating a vast area in the world’s worst nuclear accident.

Russian troops occupied the heavily contaminated Chernobyl site soon after the invasion, but returned control to the Ukrainians after withdrawing from the area in late March.

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Ukraine has accused Russia of storing troops and weapons at the plant and using its premises to launch strikes against Ukrainian-controlled territory across the Dnieper. Ukrainian officials and military analysts say Moscow’s forces cynically used the facility as a shield, knowing Ukrainians would be reluctant to fire back.


Russia has denied the allegations, in return accusing Ukrainian forces of repeatedly shelling the plant.

A series of attacks on the plant in recent days damaged some of its auxiliary equipment but not its reactors, and Russian authorities said there was no risk of a radiation leak.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said Sunday’s Ukrainian shelling of the plant caused a surge of electricity and smoke, triggering an emergency shutdown and forcing staff to lower the power of two of the reactors.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned that Ukraine’s shelling of the power plant would have “catastrophic consequences for vast areas, for all of Europe,” while the Russian Foreign Ministry accused Ukraine of “taking all of Europe hostage.”

Ukrainian officials countered by accusing Russian forces of planting explosives at the facility in preparation for an expected Ukrainian counter-offensive in the region. They have also accused Russia of launching attacks from the factory, using Ukrainian workers there as human shields and shelling the site itself.


Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the Russian shelling and mining of the facility amounted to “nuclear blackmail”.

Zaporizhia Governor Oleksandr Starukh said that while the reactors are well protected by their thick concrete safety domes, the presence of Russian troops makes it impossible to guarantee their safe operation. He also noted that the spent nuclear fuel storage facilities at the facility were not as well protected as the reactors.

Mark Wenman, a nuclear expert at London’s Imperial College, said the plant’s reactors are “designed to protect against natural disasters and/or man-made incidents such as plane crashes or reactor accidents”.

“I don’t think there would be a high probability of the containment building rupturing even if accidentally hit by an explosive shell, and even less likely that the reactor itself could be damaged by it,” he said. He added that the spent fuel is also stored in “very strong steel and concrete casks designed to withstand very high-energy impacts.”



Rafael Mariano Grossi, director-general of the United Nations nuclear regulatory body, the International Atomic Energy Agency, told The Associated Press last week that the situation around the Zaporizhia power plant was “completely out of control,” making an urgent plea to Russia and Ukraine, experts to allow visits to the complex in order to stabilize the situation and avoid a nuclear accident.

“Every principle of nuclear safety has been violated,” Grossi said in the attachment. “What is at stake is extremely serious and extremely serious and dangerous.”

Grossi said the supply chain for equipment and spare parts has been disrupted, “so we’re not sure the plant is getting everything it needs.” He pointed out that the IAEA also had to carry out extremely important inspections to ensure that nuclear material will be secured.

Grossi added that there had been friction and reports of violence between the Russians and Ukrainian personnel.


“If you put this together, you have a catalog of things that should never happen at a nuclear facility,” Grossi said.


The IAEA has been trying in vain for months to send an inspection team to the facility.

Moscow has said it welcomes an IAEA visit to the facility, but it is unclear whether it is willing to actually help organize such a trip.

Ukraine has previously opposed Grossi’s visit to the site as long as it remains under Moscow’s control and has called for the Russian military to withdraw.

This week, however, Ukrainian officials appeared to be warming to such a trip, with Ukrainian Ombudsman Dmytro Lubinets urging the UN and IAEA to send a delegation to help with the “complete demilitarization of the territory” and provide safety guarantees for plant workers.


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Sarah Y. Kim

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