Ukraine’s Largest Nuclear Power Plant Taken by Russian Forces

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported on March 4 that Russian forces had taken control of the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) site, but that the reactors continued to be operated by the plant’s regular staff and there had been no release of radioactive material.

“What we are telling you is confirmed information that is coming straight from the Ukrainian regulator or straight from the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, where we have contacts at the moment and permanently through the night,” IAEA Director General Rafael Mario Grossi said during a press conference held on Friday at 10:30 a.m. CET (4:30 a.m. EST) in Vienna, Austria.

Grossi reported that overnight a projectile had hit a training/construction building within the plant site, causing a fire, which was extinguished by the local fire brigade at the power station. “It’s important to say that all the safety systems of the six reactors at the plant were not affected at all and that there has been no release of radioactive material,” Grossi emphasized during his press briefing. “Importantly, in this regard, is the radiation monitoring systems. So, the systems we have to measure the radiation are fully functional as well. However, as you can imagine, the operator and the regulator have been telling us that the situation continues to be extremely tense and challenging, because of the circumstances,” he said.

Two people were reportedly injured at the plant. Neither were members of the plant operations or technical staff. Grossi said they were security personnel.

The Zaporizhzhya facility (Figure 1) is the largest nuclear power plant in Europe with six 1,000-MW reactors. It is located in the “steppe zone” of Ukraine, a natural grassland plain in the southern part of the country. The IAEA said only one reactor—Unit 4—was currently online. It was running at about 60% power. Of the other units, Units 1 is shut down for maintenance, Units 2 and 3 had undergone a controlled shutdown, and Units 5 and 6 were being held in reserve (“in low-power mode”).

1. The Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant, which has six 1,000-MW units, is the largest nuclear power plant in Europe. Courtesy: Energoatom

“Despite yesterday’s events, the energy system is stable and provides Ukrainian consumers and armed forces with electricity. Nuclear, thermal, and hydroelectric stations are operational,” Volodymyr Kudrytskyi, CEO of Ukrenergo, a Ukrainian transmission system operator, reported in a video shared on social media. Kudrytskyi noted that a lot of infrastructure had been damaged. “Our dispatchers and repair team personnel of regional energy companies do everything possible to use any chance to restore electricity service to the citizens. Just in the last 24 hours, we restored electricity service to 200,000 people. Unfortunately, a lot of people still have no access to electricity due to combat actions.” He added that Ukraine is taking steps to integrate its system with the European grid to ensure a more stable source of electricity is available.

Principles for Nuclear Safety During Conflict

During a special session of the IAEA Board of Governors on Wednesday, Grossi said he had reminded member states of seven principles all parties should abide by, which are:

  • The physical integrity of the facilities—whether the reactors, fuel ponds, or radioactive waste stores—must be maintained.
  • All safety and security systems and equipment must be fully functional at all times.
  • The operating staff must be able to fulfill their safety and security duties and have the capacity to make decisions free of undue pressure.
  • There must be secure off-site power supply from the grid for all nuclear sites.
  • There must be uninterrupted logistical supply chains and transportation to and from the sites.
  • There must be effective on-site and off-site radiation monitoring systems and emergency preparedness and response measures.
  • There must be reliable communications with the regulator and others.

“Everybody agrees, without any exception—no country disagrees—that these principles must be maintained. However, the first of this—the physical integrity of the plant—has been compromised with what happened last night,” said Grossi. “It is obvious that when we all agree on these principles, words must mean something, and we have to act in consequence. So, for us—the IAEA—it is time for action.”

Meeting Requested to Agree on Framework

Grossi said he indicated to both the Russian Federation and Ukraine that he wanted to travel to Chernobyl to meet as a group as soon as possible. The Chernobyl site (Figure 2), located in northern Ukraine near the country’s border with Belarus, was taken over by Russian forces very soon after the invasion began on Feb. 24. Chernobyl is, of course, the site of one of the worst nuclear reactor disasters in history, which occurred in April 1986.

2. The Chernobyl nuclear power plant with its arch-shaped New Safe Confinement (NSC) structure is seen here behind the abandoned city of Pripyat, Ukraine. The NSC, which is 108 meters high, 162 meters long, and has a span of 257 meters, was built to prevent the release of contaminated material from the original sarcophagus, which was hastily constructed over the Unit 4 reactor building less than a year after the accident. The original structure deteriorated fairly quickly for a variety of reasons, but the NSC is expected to last at least 100 years. Source: Shutterstock

On March 3, Ukraine informed the IAEA that staff, who have been kept at the Chernobyl plant since Russian military forces took control of the site, were facing “psychological pressure and moral exhaustion.” Grossi urged the Russians to allow staff to rest and rotate so that their crucial work can be carried out safely and securely. Energoatom, the operator of all Ukrainian NPPs, issued a statement on March 3 calling the Chernobyl seizure by Russian troops “nuclear terrorism.” Ukraine asked the IAEA to “call upon NATO to close access to the airspace over Ukraine’s nuclear facilities and to intensify the efforts to prevent any act of nuclear terrorism.”

Grossi said his goal in meeting with Russian and Ukrainian leaders at Chernobyl would be to agree on a framework that would prevent the seven principles he outlined from being compromised again.

Ukraine is heavily dependent on nuclear energy, with its 15 reactors providing more than half of the country’s electricity in 2020, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). In addition to the six units at the Zaporizhzhya NPP, Rivne NPP and Khmelnytskyi NPP, both located in western Ukraine, have four and two units, respectively, and the South-Ukraine NPP, located about 175 miles west of the Zaporizhzhya station, has three units. The South-Ukraine NPP is part of a larger Electric Power Producing Complex (EPPC) that also includes the Olexandrivska hydroelectric power plant and the Tashlyk pumped-storage facility. Grossi said there are no significant risks at the other sites at the present time.

Aaron Larson is POWER’s executive editor (@AaronL_Power, @POWERmagazine).

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