For the past couple of weeks, we have been hearing about military activity around the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP). Of course, the Russian occupation and stationing of military vehicles within the plant is dangerous. Unfortunately, both Russia and Ukraine are motivated to exaggerate the plant’s dangers. For Ukraine, reporting a desperate situation at the plant may motivate its western supporters to increase their support. For Russia, it is a way to rattle nukes without referring to nuclear weapons. Both take advantage of exaggerated fears about nuclear issues.
Add to that Russian threats against the Ukrainian operators, which make it impossible to get reliable reports of the status of the plant from the people who know. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the international oversight agency for nuclear plants, wants to be able to inspect the plant, but Russia has refused to allow them in.
ZNPP is the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, with six VVER (Soviet design) nuclear reactors. Russia took the plant early in its war against Ukraine, probably as part of its attempt at a quick takeover of the country and installation of a puppet regime. They also seized hydroelectric plants and shelled another nuclear plant at Rivne. It makes sense to secure the power plants in regime change.
Although the reactors are of Soviet/ Russian design, Ukraine has contracted with Westinghouse to supply fuel for the reactors, given Russia’s growing hostility. This has probably contributed to Vladimir Putin’s animus toward Ukraine and perhaps the targeting of the plant.
But regime change didn’t work, and the Russians continued to occupy the plant. So they have to think of something to do with it. They seem to be making it up on the fly.
Over the last couple of weeks, Crimean locations have come under attack. That is very bad news for the Russians. Ukrainian artillery supposedly does not have the range to do this. A drone was shot down over Russia’s headquarters for its Black Sea Fleet. Other hits may have been sabotage. Except for that one drone, the cause of the incidents is not known, but they benefit Ukraine. Heating up the situation around ZNPP is one way to distract from this seriously bad development.
Russia has indicated that it wants to disconnect ZNPP from the Ukrainian electrical grid and connect it to the Russian grid. Just before the war started, Ukraine disconnected totally from the Russian grid. Disconnection and reconnection are not a simple operations and can lead to damage to equipment if not done correctly. Russia has brought some people who may be experts to ZNPP, and, of course, the Ukrainian operators are capable of doing this with the cooperation of people running the grids.
The operators have essentially been kidnapped and are working under duress. There are reports of their being tortured.
For the past couple of weeks, there have been reports of shelling of the plant and of military trucks being stored in the turbine halls (not the reactors!) and in other places around the plant.
A small nearby coal-fired plant, intended to supply power to the reactors, has also been shelled. A water main at that plant burst under fire, which seems mostly to have been aimed at the ash piles to disperse the ash and cause higher radiation readings at the nuclear plant. Coal ash contains radioactive elements at low levels. Claims of higher radiation levels showed up on social media, but few seem to have taken them to mean that something had gone wrong with the reactors.
External power is needed to cool the reactors, even if they are shut down. What could happen is something like what happened at Fukushima – a meltdown of the nuclear fuel. Four of the six reactors have been shut down for a while, so they are less likely to melt down. External power comes from that coal plant and diesel-operated generators next to the reactors. However, there have been reports that the Russians have used the diesel fuel for their trucks.
The bottom line, of course, is that it’s worse than foolish to have a war around and in a nuclear power plant, and that Russia should minimally allow the IAEA team in to determine what the situation is and preferably withdraw their military from the plant.
Today the plant is reported to have lost external power, but it looks like the power has been restored, and power continued to be available from the coal plant. As a result of the power loss, the two reactors that remain in operation were disconnected from the Ukrainian grid, causing blackouts in the surrounding area, including the city of Enerhodar, where the operators live. The plant has been reconnected to the grid.
Some of the media reports are confusing, so let me be explicit. There are power lines coming into ZNPP to maintain the flow of cooling water. Three of them have been cut by earlier Russian shelling, and the last, the fourth, was cut today. A nearby coal plant can also supply power, as can diesel generators on site. The power that the ZNPP reactors generate goes out to Ukrainian homes and businesses over the grid. Reports are that Russia would like to divert that power to Russia. When that fourth line was cut, the reactor power was disconnected from the grid, but it is back on now.
Update: I am seeing mixed reports as to whether ZNPP is providing power to the Ukrainian grid. There is some speculation that the interruption of power for cooling the reactors resulted in the remaining two reactors shutting down (“scrammed”).
Cross-posted to Lawyers, Guns & Money