Mark Mackinnon

September 10, 2022

The Globe and Mail

The Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant has been put into a cold shutdown after a warning from Ukraine’s Energy Minister that the situation was sliding toward “the Fukushima scenario.”  On Sunday morning, at 3:41 a.m. local time, Ukraine’s atomic energy agency, Energoatom, announced that the last of the Zaporizhzhia plant’s six reactors had been shut down, and that “arrangements for its cooling and transfer to a cold state are underway.”

Energoatom was able to shut down Reactor No. 6, which for the past three days had been only providing electricity to the plant itself, after repairing a transmission line that had previously been damaged by Russian shelling. The agency said that if the line was damaged again – “the risk of which remains high” amid continued fighting in the area – the plant would have to rely on in-house diesel generators to provide electricity for the cooling of nuclear fuel and other radioactive material.

In a Friday interview with The Globe and Mail, Energy Minister Herman Halushchenko said it was “quite, quite dangerous” for the facility to rely on diesel generators for any prolonged period of time. “The situation is very close to the Fukushima scenario when it was cut off [from its] supply of electricity, then diesel generators started working,” he said, referring to the 2011 nuclear disaster in Japan, which was caused by a massive earthquake and tsunami. “After the tsunami [swamped] this generator, the disaster happened. In this situation, the diesel generator is working but there could be some Russian crazy shelling.  “And so, one mine or one missile or whatever could stop the working of the generators and then you have one hour and probably 30 minutes, not more than two hours, before the reaction starts.”

Mr. Halushchenko, a former senior official at Energoatom, isn’t alone in trying to raise the alarm about the potential disaster at Zaporizhzhia. The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi, said Friday that fighting around the plant had “significantly increased the risk of a nuclear accident.” Earlier this month, he visited the facility, where the IAEA has two observers based. “Shelling is putting in danger operators and their families, making it difficult to adequately staff the plant,” Mr. Grossi said in a video statement, demanding that the bombardments “stop and a nuclear safety and security protection zone [be] agreed [to] immediately.”

Russia and Ukraine have blamed each other for the shelling near the Zaporizhzhia plant, which has been under the former’s control since March. Mr. Halushchenko accused Russia of using the facility as a military base and firing artillery from the plant’s territory. Russian forces, he said, often shelled the area around the plant in an apparent attempt to destroy the power lines connecting the Zaporizhzhia station to the Ukrainian power grid.

The Zaporizhzhia plant sits on the frontline of the war in southern Ukraine, across the Dnipro River from the city of Nikopol, which had a pre-war population of 115,000 people.

Mr. Halushchenko said that the only way to implement the IAEA’s call for a neutral zone around the plant was for it to be demilitarized and returned to Ukrainian control. “It’s the first precedent in world history when a nuclear object is occupied by the military.”

Mr. Halushchenko said his office was in daily contact with the Ukrainian staff who continue to work inside the plant and who, he added, were “exhausted because of moral and physical pressure” – escalating the possibility of human error at the facility.

Nuclear power usually accounts for about a third of Ukraine’s energy mix. With Zaporizhzhia shut down, and Russia choking supplies of natural gas to Europe – which usually re-exports some of that gas to Ukraine – Mr. Halushchenko acknowledged the country would struggle to meet its energy needs as winter approached.

The country’s Soviet-era centralized heating system will be switched on later than usual this fall, and Mr. Halushchenko said the target temperature for heat provided to homes and businesses would be set “several degrees lower” than the usual 21 C.

The spectre of nuclear disaster is particularly poignant in Ukraine, where many are still haunted by memories of the 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the north of the country.

That mothballed plant also briefly fell under Russian occupation at the start of the war. Mr. Halushchenko said that when he visited it shortly after Russian troops withdrew from the facility in April, he was shocked by the apparent disregard they had shown for basic nuclear safety.

He added that the retreating Russian troops had looted the power plant, stealing computers and other technology before attempting to destroy everything they couldn’t carry. Chernobyl is now back under Ukrainian control and IAEA monitoring, but Mr. Halushchenko said a second disaster may have been averted only because the Russians didn’t know what was and wasn’t important to the safety of the facility.  “It looks like they didn’t know what to ruin,” he said.

The Russian forces had also dug trenches and filled sandbags with extremely radioactive soil from the territory of the plant. Mr. Halushchenko predicted that some of those who had occupied Chernobyl were either extremely ill now, or soon would be, because of the high doses of radiation they would have received.