Podcast “Learned something again”: Zaporischschja? Meltdown remains unlikely

Nuclear power plant bombardment as a war tactic
Zaporizhia? Meltdown is unlikely

By Kevin Schulte

Concerns about a nuclear catastrophe in Ukraine have been high since the nuclear power plant in Zaporizhia was shelled. Military expert Carlo Masala speaks of “one of the most dangerous situations in the course of the war so far”. A meltdown is still unlikely.

A nuclear power plant being shelled in war is pretty much the last thing Ukraine needs. At least the nuclear power plant in Zaporizhia, not far from the front in the south of the country, has survived the fighting well so far. Radiation does not escape, the Federal Office for Radiation Protection carefully gives the all-clear via remote diagnosis. The measured radiation values ​​are in the “normal range”.

The largest nuclear power plant in Europe has been in Russian hands since the beginning of March. The Kremlin troops took control of the nuclear power plant shortly after the start of the war. Since then it has been operated by Ukrainian personnel but under the strict control of Russian occupiers and nuclear engineers from Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear power company. According to the Ukrainian operating company Energoatom, 500 Russian soldiers are currently in and around the power plant.

The Russian army uses the nuclear power plant as a de facto military base. The Russians have stationed artillery on the site and are attacking Ukrainian areas from here. That had the”Wall Street Journal” found out in early July. The military uses the nuclear power plant as a shield for their weapons. Between the reactor towers are tanks and a multiple rocket launcher, reports the US newspaper. For months, the Russians have been firing from here at the city of Nikopol and other Ukrainian positions on the opposite side of the Dnipro River.

“New Dimension of War”

However, the nuclear power plant has only been the focus of the war since rockets hit the site. The first incident occurred at the end of last week: the rocket hit caused a fire on the site and damaged a high-voltage line. As a result, the Ukrainian operator Energoatom took a reactor off the grid. The next shelling follows a day later. A worker is injured. Rockets are said to have hit the site this week as well.

Russia accuses Ukraine of attacking the nuclear power plant. Ukraine says Russia did. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks of an “act of terror”. The world should remember the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. “A reactor exploded there. Europe’s largest nuclear power plant has six reactor units,” warns Zelenskyj in a video message.

Military expert Carlo Masala from the Bundeswehr University in Munich also warns of a “new dimension to the war.” In the Stern Podcast “Ukraine – the location” he speaks of “one of the most dangerous situations in the course of the war so far”. If the nuclear power plant in Zaporizhia were seriously damaged, “a second Chernobyl cannot be ruled out,” says Masala. “It’s an extremely dangerous situation.”

So that the Russian troops can continue firing rockets from the nuclear power plant undisturbed, they have mined the area around the power plant, reports the Russian exile medium “The Insiders”. According to Ukrainian media and authorities, the Russian occupiers themselves wired the power plant with explosives. “It’s part of the nuclear threat that we’ve seen throughout the war. Regardless of whether this report is true or not, and regardless of whether the Ukrainians or the Russians are shelling the nuclear plant, the fact that fighting in the take place near a nuclear power plant is extremely dangerous,” assesses expert Masala.

Russia can’t create a bigger threat. According to the motto: If Ukraine tries to drive us out of the nuclear power plant, we’ll blow up the whole area. That would be a GAU with intent.

Connection to the Russian power grid planned

First and foremost, Russia wants to use the plant to power the annexed Crimea. Ukrainian authorities see signs that Moscow intends to disconnect the nuclear power plant from Ukraine’s power grid and connect it to the Russian grid to produce electricity for the peninsula south of Zaporizhia.

In order for this to work, the nuclear power plant must first be completely cut off from the energy supply, said the President of Energoatom, Petro Kotin. The Russians have already damaged three of the four production lines, and the nuclear power plant is currently running on just one line. If the last line is cut by the Russians, the entire huge nuclear power plant will depend on diesel generators.

That is the most dangerous moment. If the power plant is disconnected from the power supply and then the generators fail, a meltdown could occur. “But I still think that’s a very hypothetical case because there are various safety devices that are designed to prevent exactly that,” says the nuclear expert Sebastian Strasky by the Society for Reactor Safety on ZDF.

Individual rockets do not endanger the reactor

“If there was a meltdown and the reactor pressure vessel ruptured, the core would flow down into the reactor pit. Then it would disperse down there in the concrete structures first. There would be a pressure build-up in the containment. And then it depends whether the containment can withstand the pressure or not,” explains Stransky. The containment is a steel shell around the reactor, with other thick reinforced concrete shells underneath. They are built to withstand a plane crash. Also means that individual rocket impacts cannot harm the reactor.

However, if the protective shell is destroyed, for example by ongoing bombing, radioactive substances could theoretically be released, says expert Stransky. But the reinforced concrete vessels have been retrofitted with emergency pressure release valves to keep the reactor vessels from rupturing.

The war around Zaporizhia remains highly dangerous, but the nuclear power plant is not on the verge of a meltdown. According to Stransky, the reactor units built in the 1980s and now upgraded “completely meet Western European safety standards”.

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