Ukraine: Zaporozhye Nuclear Plant Staggers On After Attack

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Russian troops are now “in control” of the Zaporozhye nuclear plant—Europe's largest—after a battle that sparked a large but localized fire at an administrative complex in the early hours on Friday. One reactor building was damaged in the skirmishing and a dry spent fuel storage area was hit, and Energoatom now says "additional assessments" are needed to judge the extent of damage and possible impact on safety.

"There has been no release of radioactive material," and "there is no issue with the spent fuel," International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Grossi said in a Friday morning press conference in Vienna. He also said that none of the plant's reactor safety systems were "affected at all," though that may be open to question in light of Energoatom's statement. Whatever the extent of damage, this combat is unprecedented in the history of the nuclear power industry, and opens a terrifying new chapter in the war in Ukraine by demonstrating a willingness of combatants to disregard the safety of an operating nuclear plant while engaged in conflict.

Grossi said that "we understand" that the onsite administrative building was hit by "a projectile coming from the Russian forces" that have surrounded the plant on its land side since the morning of Monday, Feb. 28.

The Unit 1 reactor building, which was down for a routine outage, was damaged and two artillery shells hit "the area of the Dry Storage Site" for spent nuclear fuel, Energoatom said in a statement today on Telegram, Ukraine's popular messaging service. "The degree of damage to the structures and systems of these nuclear installations and their impact on safety requires additional assessments based on the results of thorough inspections by special services of the operating organization."

The fire, which broke out in a building about 1,500 feet from Unit 1, was attributed to "enemy shelling" and "severely damaged" a training center, according to the statement. "Operational personnel, who were on shift at the time of the Russian occupation of the ZNPP site, were forced to continue working at their workplaces for more than 24 hours. There are no dead or injured among the ZNPP staff. Some of the staff received medical care due to stress."

Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, Vasily Nebenzya, told the UN Security Council on Friday that statements "blaming the Russian military for the attack" were part of "an unprecedented campaign of lies and disinformation against Russia. You're trying to present the situation in such a way as though the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant was allegedly shelled by the Russian military as a result of which a fire broke out. These statements are simply untrue."

Earlier in that same session, Grossi, speaking from a plane taking him to Tehran for more talks on agency safeguards concerns related to the Iran nuclear deal talks, reiterated his offer to the Russian and Ukrainian governments that he visit Chernobyl to mediate an agreement between the two sides that would avoid further combat at Ukraine's nuclear facilities. He said that he would also speak "to the forces in charge, in order to establish a stable framework so the observance of the basic principles of safety and security starting with the physical integrity of the facilities can be observed." Chernobyl was captured by Russian troops on the first day of their invasion of Ukraine.

Energoatom has been gradually shutting down the six 1000 MW reactors sited neatly in a row along the Dneiper River, and as of Friday morning only Unit 4 was still operating — at 60% of its capacity, according to Grossi. Energoatom's statement said the unit's power was "increased to 825 MW" and "the load of the power unit continues."

Fighting Overnight

Live video feed from the plant showed an exchange of fire in the early hours of Friday morning between Russian troops on the ground and Ukrainian resistance, some of whom appeared to be fighting from inside the main administration complex that includes the now damaged training center for reactor operators.

It is not clear whether the resistance was made up of official defense forces, plant security, town residents, or a combination thereof. At one point a long, rectangular five-story Soviet-era building adjacent to the more modern training center in the administration complex caught fire, with flames engulfing the building's façade. Ukraine's nuclear regulator said Friday morning that the blaze was extinguished by the Ukrainian State Emergency Service units.

The incident followed a day of brutal skirmishes in the nearby town of Enerhodar, where workers at the Zaporozhye plant live. A day earlier, on Mar. 2, thousands of town residents stood on a main road and temporarily blocked Russian armored personnel carriers and other equipment from approaching the plant. Videos of one violent confrontation circulated, with Russian troops eventually backing off. By Mar. 3, however, they took control of the town and set up positions outside the nuclear plant. Dmitry Orlov, Enerhodar’s mayor, told Telegram that a column of Russian troops, including 100 armored vehicles, fought its way through the town, an armed checkpoint, and toward the plant.

IAEA — Working '24/7'

The IAEA has been monitoring the situation and earlier on Mar. 3 appealed to both sides to cease using force at both Enerhodar and near the plant. On Wednesday, Grossi said that the agency's emergency center is working "24/7. They're working all the time. And they are in contact with these operators all the time and they are answering our questions." Friday morning Grossi said that the IAEA's information is coming "straight from the Ukrainian regulator or straight from" Zaporozhye itself.

In a somewhat uncharacteristically emotional note about the plant workers during his Wednesday press conference, Grossi remarked "how difficult, how stressing this may be when their families could be in danger, where they may have lost people they love and when their own country is in this situation. So I think they really deserve our praise. And the reason I am mentioning this is because the issue of having staff which is well-rested, competent and present there is very, very important. It is a humanitarian issue, but not only. It's also a technical issue."

For now there is little further clarity on Russia's intentions, or whether they have followed what they did at the decommissioned Chernobyl nuclear plant, by establishing joint security over the Zaporozhye facility and allowing regular personnel to operate the reactors. Even so, it could be that Moscow, which is meeting fierce resistance and suffering heavy casualties, wants to take control over key infrastructure as a way of bringing Ukraine to heel.

Given what has happened at Zaporozhye, the fate of the South Ukraine nuclear power plant, located 160 miles to the west, will now come into focus. On Mar. 3, fighting was reported 18 miles south of the plant in the town Voznesensk. The plant consists of three VVER-1000 reactors, and a plant spokesman told Energy Intelligence Friday that the plant is stable and operating, with 150 containers of spent fuel in an onsite dry storage facility.

Ukraine's At-Risk Nuclear Plants


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