What happens if Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant explodes?

While an explosion isn’t impossible, experts say the greatest concern is the radiation spill that could result from the Russia-Ukraine war.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has raised alarm over the ongoing firefight at the Russian-controlled Zaporizhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine, saying the current situation poses a major risk and could lead to a “nuclear catastrophe”.

Both Russia and Ukraine have accused each other of attacking the plant and committing “nuclear terrorism”, with the IAEA calling for “extreme restraint” around the site.

Here’s what we know about the situation so far.

Where is the Zaporizhia Nuclear Power Plant and why is it important?

  • The Zaporizhia Nuclear Power Plant is the largest in Europe and the 10th largest in the world; It generates half of Ukraine’s nuclear-generated power.

  • The plant has a total capacity of about 6,000 MW, which is enough to power about four million homes.
  • It is located on the Ukrainian Plain south of the Dnieper River, about 550km (342 mi) southeast of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv and about 525km (325 mi) south of Chernobyl, the site of the world’s worst nuclear power plant accident in 1986.

  • Currently, the plant is operated by Ukrainian personnel but Russian military units guard the facility.

  • According to the IAEA, the plant consists of six Soviet-designed water-cooled reactors containing uranium 235, each with a net capacity of 950 megawatts. One MW will provide energy for 400 to 900 households in a year.

  • The Zaporizhia plant is also about 200km (125 miles) from Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014.

  • On Tuesday, Ukrainian operator Energoatom said Russian forces occupying the area were preparing to “connect the plant to the Crimean electricity grid”.

  • Michael Black, director of Imperial College London’s Center of Nuclear Engineering, told Al Jazeera that the main concern is that connecting the plant to the Crimean electricity grid could disrupt offsite power to the reactors. “You need that power to provide cooling to the reactors … until [those generators] function, then everything is fine,” he said.

  • “It is encouraging to see that Russians want to use electricity; This means that they do not want to harm [the power plant],” he added.

What has the IAEA said?

  • IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi described the situation as “totally out of control” in an interview with The Associated Press last week.

  • “Every principle of nuclear safety has been violated”, Grossi said. “What is at stake is very serious and very serious and dangerous.”

  • During the interview, he said that the physical integrity of the plant was not respected and the supply chain was disrupted, so it was not certain that the plant was getting everything it needed, “and there is a lot of nuclear material that needs to be inspected”.

  • In a statement issued Tuesday, Grossi said he was preparing to brief the United Nations Security Council on nuclear safety at the plant on Thursday and his efforts to agree and lead an expert mission to the site as soon as possible.

  • The IAEA has been trying to send an inspection team to the nuclear power plant for months but has been unsuccessful.

  • The watchdog also said on Tuesday that Ukraine had informed the IAEA about restoring a power line that could be used to supply electricity to the plant from a nearby thermal power plant if necessary.

  • “This external power line is essential to protect proper cooling of the facility.

  • big Said the need For safe offsite power supply as one of the seven nuclear security pillars at the start of the conflict.

Given the IAEA’s warnings, could the plant explode – and if so – what would happen?

  • According to experts, it is possible but not certain.

  • “What we have with military involvement is very difficult … if a number of catastrophic factors come together, there’s a chance of an explosion,” said Ross Peel, research and knowledge transfer manager at the Center for Science and Security Studies at King’s College London. Al Jazeera.

  • “It is difficult to say whether it will happen or not [happen] And its possible consequences, what they might be. It depends on how the explosion happens,” he added.

  • There are concerns about firing around the facility with the potential to damage critical infrastructure, including the reactors.

  • “Nuclear Reactors [need] Continuous cooling with water [them,]MV Ramana, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, told Al Jazeera.

  • “If that water flow is cut off, cut off, cut off, the reactor can cool down, the fuel will start to melt. This will create high pressure and cause the object to explode,” he added.

  • Immediately after the explosion, experts say an invisible radioactive cloud is likely to cause mass migration. However, the effects of the radiation leak will be felt for years to come

  • “You’re probably going to see millions of people trying to flee the area,” Ramana told Al Jazeera.

  • “There will be a cloud, but you won’t be able to see it … we’re able to track the cloud because [we] There are sensitive devices that measure radiation levels,” he added.

  • Some of the illnesses we see from an explosion like this can be acute radiation poisoning or cancer that can appear later.

  • “So, for example, at Chernobyl, people who were actually standing on top of a burning building to get into the reactor and put out the fire, they were exposed to massive amounts of radiation and suffered the effects within hours,” Ross said. .

  • “People who aren’t exposed to that much can still get severe radiation poisoning and recover. This happens over days to weeks, maybe months. For people exposed to lower levels of radiation, the number of cancer cases could be higher for years to decades to come,” he added.
A picture shows the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant during the Ukraine-Russia conflict outside the Russian-controlled city of Enrhodar in Ukraine's Zaporizhia region on August 4, 2022.  REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko
The Zaporizhia plant is operated by Ukrainian personnel, but Russian military units guard the facility [File: Reuters]

What other conditions can arise?

  • Instead of an explosion of the reactor core, experts are more concerned about the spent fuel pool and damage to the reactor cooling system. If cooling fails, this can lead to uncontrolled heat generation, a meltdown and fire that can release and spread radiation from containment structures.

  • Amelie Stoetzel, a PhD student in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, told Al Jazeera, “We are mostly afraid of radiation releases, not necessarily explosions.

  • “Although it sounds scary, [a] A radiation release, in any case, would be catastrophic,” she added.

  • “It is unpredictable; We don’t know where the feather is [containing radioactive material] will go; Depending on the weather conditions it can really go anywhere.

  • Due to the geographical location of the plant, the release of radiation can occur on any part of the European continent.

  • “Zaporizia is in the middle of the continent. So no matter which way the wind blows, someone is going to get contaminated,” Ramana said.

  • Overall, experts stressed that it is difficult to make any kind of predictions at this stage.

  • “We are really convinced that the military activity around the nuclear power plant is threatening it. And it’s very difficult to predict exactly how that will happen,” Ross said.

What happens next if there is a radiation leak?

  • Specialists are expected to evacuate immediately but there are also difficulties in accessing medical facilities as they expect a surge in patients.

  • “When there were radiation accidents, there were a lot of people who showed symptoms of radiation poisoning because of fear and panic, even though they weren’t exposed,” Stoetzel said.

  • Experts also say that evacuations from war zones will come with their own set of complications.

  • “A lot of people have already left the area, but there are still a lot of people left behind,” Stoetzel said.

  • “So yes, a lot of people will be running into the hospital and rushing to get out of the area, which will be a problem … chaos; In an ongoing war, it is extremely difficult to evacuate people,” she added.

  • According to experts, for many people, the fear of radiation can be more dangerous than the radiation itself.

  • “We can see an increase in patients because of psychological symptoms that are associated with the knowledge that radiation may have leaked from a nearby nuclear power plant.”

  • “So actually the most problematic issue for the government is how to deal with the large number of patients,” she added.

  • In the event of an explosion or fire, the release of radiation could cause a “long-term disaster.”

  • “It’s not something where people are exposed to it and immediately drop down and die … there’s going to be a huge, psychological toll on top of the psychological toll of war,” Ramana said.

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