Ukraine, what happens if the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant explodes? The expert answers

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Tensions rise around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine. Territory in the hands of the Russians for months, but with Ukrainian technicians working inside it, the plant continues to be at risk due to its importance – it is the largest nuclear power plant in Europe – and its symbolic and strategic value, as well as for its position, in the middle of an area bitterly disputed by Russians and Ukrainians with very hard fighting. As Sky News reports, the specter of a nuclear accident is now returning to Zaporizhzhia, with Russia accused of having also placed “explosive devices” on the roof of the plant. Why did the voltage rise and what would happen in the event of an explosion in one or more reactors? These questions were answered by an expert on nuclear plants, Eugene Shwageraus (FOLLOW THE LIVEBLOG ON THE WAR IN UKRAINE).

The Zaporizhzhia plant

The Ukrainian nuclear power plant is located near the city of Enerhodar on the banks of the Dnipro River. It is one of the ten largest plants in the world: in the past it generated almost half of Ukraine’s nuclear energy, more than 20% of all that generated in the country. It has six reactors capable of generating approximately 1,000 megawatts of electricity each, for a total of over 5700 MW. The reactors are Soviet-built, built in the 1980s: unit 6 was commissioned in 1996. How does a nuclear power plant work? Electricity is generated through a process of nuclear fission, with the controlled splitting of uranium atoms, to produce heat: this is used to boil water and create steam which turns turbines to generate electricity. The plant was captured by the Russians after heavy fighting, with one shell also hitting the outer wall of reactor 4, and was placed under the control of Rosatom, Russia’s state-owned nuclear company. For safety reasons, linked to the military clashes in the country and in particular in the area of ​​the plant, the reactors have been shut down. One of these is particularly important because it produces the energy needed to cool the plant itself.

Tensions rise on the nuclear power plant

As reported by Sky News, fears for the safety of the plant have grown in proportion to the level of confrontation in the area, threats and mutual accusations between Russia and Ukraine. The latest in chronological order would see a plot to organize an attack on the plant. The Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke of “dangerous provocations”, while the armed forces of Kiev denounced the presence of “explosive devices” that would have been placed on the roof of reactors 3 and 4, a way – they write on Telegram – to be able to accuse Ukraine for bombing the plant, in case they are blown up. On the other side Renat Karchaa, adviser to the head of Rosenergoatom which manages the Russian nuclear network, said that Ukraine would plan to abandon munitions mixed with nuclear waste collected from another of the country’s five nuclear power plants in Zaporizhzhia. According to one of the hypotheses circulating, linked to an unconfirmed report, the Russians are starting to leave the plant: it is feared a scenario similar to the one that led to the explosion and related disaster of the Nova Kakhovka dam could occur.

What are the risks of an explosion in Zaporizhzhia

Given therefore the climate of growing tension, one wonders what could happen if there were an explosion of the nuclear plant. Eugene Shwageraus, professor of nuclear energy systems engineering at the University of Cambridge, spoke about it in an interview with Sky News: “The plant is not built to house troops and military equipment. Obviously the power plants are there to generate electricity and l ‘misuse of any industrial facility is a cause for concern.” Having said that, the expert explains, nuclear power plants have been built “quite robustly”. With the reactors shut down months ago, the most dangerous fission product, iodine-131, has now decayed to safe levels. According to Shwageraus, iodine-131 is the most important because it is extremely volatile and very dangerous to humans if released into the environment. The isotopes of other elements obviously remain active, which can be volatile or dangerous, but not with both characteristics. Some therefore are certainly dangerous if they come into contact with humans, but they do not have the volatility of iodine-131. But could a large explosion at the facility scatter one of the aforementioned radioactive materials and send it further afield? Shwageraus is sure and invites calm: “The term ‘further’ means that you will contaminate the parking lot of the central one”. So no danger for the other neighboring countries, according to the expert.