The war zone in Ukraine has prompted a global nuclear emergency response with the arrival of the International Atomic Energy Agency inspection team and efforts underway to safeguard the largest nuclear power plant in Europe. Virginia Tech nuclear policy expert Sonja Schmid answers the following questions.
Q: What’s at risk surrounding the nuclear power plant in Ukraine?
A nuclear power plant should not be targeted, let alone shot at, full stop. Shelling any industrial facility carries the risk of harm to off-site territories and populations, if damaged during armed conflict.
A nuclear plant such as Zaporizhzhiia has multiple vulnerable parts as it constitutes as a large technological system that is comprised not only of multiple, interconnected technical systems, but also is integrated into the region’s electricity grid. It also involves not only staff onsite, but also their families and back-up personnel.
Similar to the earlier incident with Russian soldiers “occupying” the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the Russian military appears to intimidate and put pressure on staff onsite, while staff on offsite back-up shifts sometimes flee the conflict, forcing onsite staff to work longer hours. In addition, that also brings stress- and fatigue-related consequences that one can expect under these circumstances.
In other words, it is not just the threats to primary and auxiliary technical systems at the plant that are very worrisome, but also the threat arising from the neglect for staff well-being, which constitutes a serious risk to the safety of the Zaporizhzhiia nuclear power plant.
Q: If there’s a loss of power, could there be a nuclear disaster?
Every nuclear power plant needs power to operate safely. A Station Black-Out (SBO) is one of the most serious emergencies any nuclear power plant prepares for. A SBO could happen if power lines connecting the plant to the electricity grid are damaged. Typically, there are diesel generators onsite that will guarantee that reactors can be safely shut down and continue to be cooled to avoid an accident.
There are two major problems with these diesel generators: first, they are intended only as a stop-gap measure until power to the station can be restored, and second, there are rumors that the diesel fuel for the emergency back-up generators may have been diverted by the occupying military forces.
An additional problem at the Zaporizhzhiia nuclear power plant is that power lines have been damaged, forcing the shut-down of now all six reactors. However, a nuclear reactor requires electricity for cooling even after it is completely shut down.
If a reactor cannot be cooled, either because of a lack of electricity or diesel to fuel the emergency generators, yes, it could melt down as we have seen most recently in Fukushima.
Sonja D. Schmid is an associate professor in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society (STS) at Virginia Tech, and the co-director of the Northern Virginia Graduate Program in STS. Her research examines the interface of national energy policies, technological choices, and nonproliferation concerns. Her first book, “Producing Power: The Pre-Chernobyl History of the Soviet Nuclear Industry” (MIT Press 2015), is based on both archival documents and interviews with Soviet nuclear veterans. In other work, she has traced Soviet nuclear technology transfer to Central and East European nations to explore the fate of Soviet-designed nuclear artifacts once their host nations joined the European Union.
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