Ukraine: Emergency crews at scene of Zaporizhzhia missile strike
Several near disasters have struck the Zaporizhzhia power plant since Russian forces took it in 2022, a structure which is Europe’s largest and among the 10 largest in the world.
On Tuesday, June 6, Russia’s state nuclear energy corporation Rosatom looked to play down fears of a meltdown after the Nova Kakhovka dam was breached in nearby Kherson.
The dam itself may not be Zaporizhzhia’s only problem, however, after workers in late May voiced concerns over its deteriorating conditions, fearing any “devastation” could be on a scale “worse than Chernobyl”.
But what exactly would happen if the nuclear power plant did fall into disarray? How would Russia, Ukraine, and the rest of Europe be affected? Express.co.uk takes a look into what has become the centre of an ongoing crisis.
‘An already extremely urgent issue’
Russian forces seized the Zaporizhzhia plant just days after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
The Russian occupiers initially left the existing Ukrainian staff in place to keep the plant running, but the exact number of staff continuing to work there today is unknown.
In May reports emerged that Russian authorities were planning on relocating around 2,700 staff from the plant.
Energoatom, Ukraine’s atomic energy company, claimed in a Telegram post that the staff were being taken to Russia along with their families, although did not specify whether the workers were being forcibly moved out of the plant.
The energy company warned that removing staff would “exacerbate the already extremely urgent issue” of staff shortages.
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Being short-staffed is just one of the issues facing Zaporizhzhia. In the last few months, it has faced a number of power outages, risking the release of nuclear waste and a failure of the reactors currently in operation.
Intense fighting has also sent alarm bells ringing, experts cautioning that any stray artillery fire nearby could well hit the plant itself.
In fact, various parts of the site have already been hit by shells and warheads from rocket-launched missiles. Aerial images show cratering and rocket tubes stuck into the ground nearby.
The Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR) say it is extremely difficult to paint a definitive picture of what may happen if the nuclear plant was hit or in some way failed.
In a wide range of possible scenarios, one sees a complete meltdown of one or more of the reactor cores. A comparable incident happened in Fukushima in 2011, after reactors were damaged and radiation was released into the environment.
It led to a year of an imposed exclusion zone around the plant, around 20km, in addition to a 30km stay-at-home and no-fly zone.
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While the evacuation of the population in Fukushima was relatively easy, things are more complicated in Ukraine. Stuck in the middle of a conflict zone, the SGR notes: “Reactor crises require rapid, coordinated and well-organised recovery measures including evacuation, emergency measures to reduce radiation, suppress fires.”
Separately, spent fuel from canisters and cooling ponds outside of Zaporizhzhia have the possibility of funnelling highly radioactive stores into the surrounding regions, including via the Dnipro River. This could contaminate water supplies and even run into the Black Sea.
A report into the outcomes by the SGR reads: “Risks downwind would be highly dependent on the wind direction, speed and any rainfall, but could threaten lethal dose rates in Marhanets and Nikopol (population 100,000) only 15km away.
“Lethal radiation doses could be experienced at least 60km downwind. This could potentially include the city of Zaporizhzhia itself, which had a pre-war population of 750,000.
“This would present a completely unmanageable evacuation requirement in peacetime let alone in the middle of an intense war. Depending on the dose rates, some areas may need to be avoided for years to decades. This was a major problem after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986 with a 30km radius exclusion zone still in place over 30 years later.”
In an eyewitness report for Sky News, two technicians at Zaporizhzhia suggested that environmental damage from nuclear fallout was soon approaching.
They warned that the consequences could cause devastation not just within Ukraine but across much of Europe, Russia, and the Mediterranean.
“The level of radioactive pollution, and most importantly the area of contamination, will be thousands of square kilometres of land and sea… it would be much, much worse than Fukushima and worse than Chernobyl,” they said.
There was, they added, a “deficit of workers” that was creating an environment of overwork, stress, and forced errors.
“There is the same deficit of workers for repairs who can actually do the servicing and fix problems,” one said. “The quality of the workers is lower because the qualified staff left. So generally the situation here is deteriorating.”
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