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Europe’s largest nuclear power plant hit by shelling in Ukraine

07 March 2022

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said on March 4 that the site of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (NPP), Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, had been shelled by Russian forces and a fire had erupted. Fortunately, the blaze did not affect “essential” equipment, the IAEA said, and there was no reported change in radiation levels.

Zaporizhzhia NPP - Image: Wikimedia/User:Ralf1969
Zaporizhzhia NPP - Image: Wikimedia/User:Ralf1969

The IAEA has been providing daily updates on the safety and security of Ukraine’s nuclear reactors since the start of Russia’s invasion which began on February 24. Ukraine has four nuclear power sites with a total of 15 reactors and is also the location of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.

Director General of the IAEA, Rafael Mariano Grossi, immediately spoke with Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal and the country’s national nuclear regulator and operator following the March 4 shelling of the Zaporizhzhia site. He appealed for a halt of the use of force and warned of severe danger if any reactors were hit. The IAWA Incident and Emergency Centre (IEC) was placed in full response mode as a result of the incident in which a projectile hit a training building in the vicinity of one of the plant’s reactor units, injuring two people. The fire was later extinguished and there was no release of radioactive material. The Zaporizhzhia NPP was taken over by Russian forces on the same day as the shelling, but the plant continued to be operated by its regular staff.

After losing communications with staff at the Zaporizhzhia NPP for several hours, Ukraine told the IAEA that while regular staff continued to operate the plant, its management was now under orders from the commander of the Russian forces that took control of the site. Any action of plant management – including measures related to the technical operation of the six reactor units – requires prior approval by the Russian commander, the IAEA said.

In a second serious development, Ukraine also reported that Russian forces switched off some mobile networks and the internet so that reliable information from the site could not be obtained through the normal channels of communication.

“I’m extremely concerned about these developments that were reported to me today. Just a few days after I presented the seven main elements of nuclear safety and security to the IAEA Board, several of them are already being compromised. In order to be able to operate the plant safely and securely, management and staff must be allowed to carry out their vital duties in stable conditions without undue external interference or pressure,” Director General Grossi said.

Despite the communication issues, the Ukrainian regulator was able to provide updated information about the operational status of the Zaporizhzhya NPP and to confirm that radiation levels there remained normal as of March 6. Of the six reactors, Unit 1 is in planned maintenance until mid-2022, Unit 2 is operating at full capacity, Unit 3 is in a cold shutdown state, Unit 4 is operating at near full capacity, Unit 5 is cooling down for a cold reserve state, and Unit 6 is in cold shutdown.

Elsewhere in Ukraine, concerns were raised on March 7 about the wellbeing of staff at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant where Russian forces had seized control of the site the week before. Ukraine’s nuclear regulator said that staff had continued working under “supervision” but were facing “psychological pressure and moral exhaustion.”

The statements were made in a joint appeal to the IAEA Director General from the Ukraine Government, regulatory authority and the national operator which added that personnel at the Chornobyl site “have limited opportunities to communicate, move and carry out full-fledged maintenance and repair work.”

They also confirmed to the Director General that Ukraine had lost regulatory control over all the facilities in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, and asked the IAEA to undertake measures “in order to reestablish legal regulation of safety of nuclear facilities and installations within the Chernobyl NPP site and within the Exclusion Zone”.

“We must take action to help avert a nuclear accident in Ukraine that could have severe consequences for public health and the environment. We can’t afford to wait,” Director General Grossi said. To help protect the country’s nuclear facilities, Grossi expressed his readiness to travel to the Chernobyl NPP to secure the commitment to the safety and security of all Ukraine’s nuclear power plants from the parties of the conflict.

At the time of writing on March 8, the IAEA’s latest update said that regarding the status of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants, eight of the country’s 15 reactors were operating, including two at the Zaporizhzhya NPP.

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