The Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant: The Actual Situation under the Russian Occupation

Antoine Bourguignon /(Bachelor in Political Science (University of Lausanne)

The Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant is located in the south-east of Ukraine. According to the magazine « power technology », it is considered as the largest nuclear power plant in Europe and is also one of the ten largest in the world. The Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant was built by the Soviet Union in 1979. The first reactor started operation in 1984. The plant is located near Energodar, more precisely on the left side of the Kakhovka water reserve. According to the IRSN (Institut de Radioprotection et de Sûreté Nucléaire) the water reserve is important for nuclear power plant to cool down the installations. Each reactor has a water intake on the inlet channel. The thermal output of the plant, which is almost 20,000 megawatts, requires a huge amounts of cooling water from the Dnieper River, which was widened especially for this site.

In February 2022, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine begun and the two countries have not yet found a common ground. According to Russian President Vladimir Putin, a land that is supposedly its own.

Russia is attacking Ukraine from the north-east with ground troops and aerial bombardments. Since the beginning of the invasion, Kiev and other Ukrainian cities have been subjected to a wave of Russian bombing. The Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky says that “they are trying to destroy us all, to wipe us off the face of the earth”. According to the Radio Canada, the European Union has called the Russian actions “war crimes” and those responsible for them will be “held accountable”. On the African side, the votes on the various resolutions on the conflict adopted at the

United Nations (UN) revealed strong differences between African countries. Djibouti supported the UN resolution calling on Russia to end its offensive, while Algeria, Tanzania and South Africa stressed the importance of diplomatic solutions without condemning Moscow’s actions. The high abstention rate was widely interpreted as a sign of increasing Russian influence or evidence of growing anti-Western sentiment in Africa. In Asia, the invasion of Ukraine by Russian armed forces has provoked mixed reactions. Despite the conflict between the Western camp and that of Moscow, many Asian countries played the neutrality card to preserve their strategic interests.

The Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant was seized in early March by Russian troops at the start of their invasion in late February. At the end of July, the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant was the target of strikes for which Ukraine and Russia accused each
other. Kiev accused Moscow of using the Nuclear Power Plant as a place where they store their weapons. Moscow was also accused of using the nuclear power plant site as a place to attack Ukrainian troops. According to mass media, this situation gives rise to fears of a nuclear disaster on Europe’s doorstep. 

Let us first look at the nuclear accidents that have occurred historically. In the past, there have been three major nuclear accidents. There was one in the Three Mile Island in 1979, another one in Chernobyl in 1986 and a third one in Fukushima in 2011. According to Bruno Comby, Polytechnician and nuclear engineer, the closest situation to Zaporizhzhya in terms of safety and protection factor is the accident that occurred in the United States. One aspect that should not be overlooked is that Zaporizhzhya is the first time in the history of civil nuclear power that we have a theatre of war with people shooting at each other with guns and rocket launchers. 

Since the takeover of the nuclear power plant, five hundred Russian soldiers, several dozen armoured vehicles and anti-aircraft defence systems have been present on the site of the nuclear power plant. The first explosions occurred in July 2022. After the first alarm, four of the six reactors were shut down to avoid a catastrophe. Since 23 August 2022, all reactors have been shut down due to fires caused by bombing. The IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) is on site to monitor the site and the incidents. According to Rafael Grossi, Director General of the IAEA, there have been explosions at the plant and whoever is behind these strikes must stop them. Ukraine accused Russia of being behind the bombing and denounces nuclear blackmail, while Russia accuses the Ukrainians of provocation.

The question now is what the risks of a nuclear catastrophe are. On 20th November 2022, 12 explosions took place again on the site of the nuclear power plant, but none of these explosions took place on so-called critical areas concerning the reactors. The strikes are sent to the non-problematic perimeter of the plant. In addition, it should be noted that the site is programmed to withstand three to four aircraft crashes. The nuclear power plant is considered to be a shielded enclosure. At a press conference, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky referred to the nuclear disasters of Chernobyl and Fukushima. Bruno Comby said that the situation cannot be compared with these two previous disasters from a safety point of view, as the Zaporizhzhya plant is better secured. The safety situation is not as alarming as that in Chernobyl or Fukushima.

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