Ukraine: Safety Continues to Deteriorate at Chernobyl, Zaporozhye

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The second full week of Russia's invasion of Ukraine saw deteriorating conditions at the Chernobyl and Zaporozhye nuclear sites occupied and controlled by Russian forces. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Grossi met on Thursday with the foreign ministers of both Ukraine and Russia, Dmytro Kuleba and Sergei Lavrov, to initiate talks on how to keep the sites — and all of Ukraine's nuclear infrastructure — operating safely. But the situation at the plants appears to be worsening as stressed workers struggle with military occupations in winter weather, power and communication losses and infrequent shift changes.

The State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine (SNRIU) reported today, Mar. 11, that Chernobyl remained without offsite power after losing it on Wednesday, Mar. 9, and that while efforts were being made to restore it, "additional supply of diesel fuel for diesel generators ensuring emergency power supply to the spent nuclear fuel storage facilities (ISF-1 and ISF-2), as well as to the New Safe Confinement above the Shelter, was delivered to the NPP site." Otherwise there was enough fuel on site to keep the generators operating for 48 hours.

The situation at the Zaporozhye nuclear plant was not much better, with the regulator reporting that "two 750 kilovolt high-voltage lines (Zaporizhzhia and South-Donbas) are still not connected, negotiations on the possibility to repair damaged high-voltage lines are under way. This issue is complicated by active hostilities in the areas of the lines damage." But the statement said there is now "permanent rotation of both operational and day-time personnel." Ukraine's energy minister alleged earlier this week that workers had been held "hostage" and that some 500 Russian soldiers and 50 units of heavy equipment are inside the massive six-unit station — Europe's largest nuclear plant — along the Dnieper River.

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which has been managing more than €2.5 billion ($2.8 billion) in international funds to transform Chernobyl since 1995, said in a Mar. 11 statement that it "believes that recent events are putting in jeopardy the achievements of decades of successful international collaboration to secure the site" and that "the ongoing war must not be allowed to ruin these achievements."

The Russian energy ministry asserted Thursday that "Belarusian power engineers" had ensured the site's power supply, at roughly the same time the Ukrainian energy ministry said it had "sent a request to the occupiers to provide a corridor for repair crews and to carry out relevant works." Ukrenergo said in a LinkedIn post that it "does NOT need the assistance of the Belarusian side in repairing the high-voltage line, damaged by the Russian shelling, that fed Chornobyl nuclear power plant. We need a cease-fire and the admission of our repair teams, who have been waiting for an agreement to leave for repairs since yesterday."

In its Friday release, SNRIU said only that "Attempts to restore the external power supply to the site are in progress," but didn't say where the crews were from. It also said that the automated radiation monitoring system for the exclusion zone had not yet been repaired.

Slow Erosion of Safety

Similarly, the IAEA has seen a cutoff in its safeguards monitoring equipment at both nuclear sites as well as a steady erosion of the seven pillars necessary for safe nuclear operations that Grossi outlined last week.

To boot, Chernobyl's onsite staff has not rotated off the site since the invasion began, and it's unclear if that's changed. Meanwhile, SNRIU said in today's statement that plant workers at Zaporozhye continue "carrying out walkdowns to detect and dispose of hazardous items that appeared on the site during the shelling and capture" of the plant by Russian troops. "The SNRIU emphasizes that any explosive items at the NPP pose a direct threat not only to the safety of personnel but also to the NPP in general!"

While there might be exaggeration about certain aspects of these situations on the ground, it's clear that workers at both sites are in an increasingly untenable situation.

"Russian occupation forces torture the operating staff" of Zaporozhye, Ukrainian Energy Minister Herman Galushchenko wrote on his Facebook page earlier this week. "According to our information, occupiers compelled the Plant's management to record an address that they plan to use for propaganda purposes. ...The employees of the station are physically and psychologically exhausted."

Even more dramatic was this week's power outage at Chernobyl, which is administered by State Specialized Enterprise Chornobyl NPP. The outage began on the morning of Mar. 9 with the loss of one of the three main overhead lines; the two others "were interrupted by the occupiers in the first days of the invasion," according to Ukrenergo head Volodymyr Kudrytskyi who blamed Russian troops for the power loss. 

"We have repeatedly negotiated with the occupiers to carry out repair work in the interests of the security of the entire continent, given the status of the Chornobyl zone and the presence of nuclear facilities," he wrote in a Mar. 9 post. "Once we agreed, and our repair crew went to inspect the damage through enemy checkpoints. It all ended in brutal searches, shootings over the heads of our employees and threats of execution — they were not allowed to repair work."

Uncertain Risks

Each side in the conflict blamed the other for the outage, and while experts largely agreed there was no imminent risk of a radiological disaster at the site the power loss was a major blow to ongoing cleanup activities.

Of immediate concern was the IF-1 spent fuel pool facility, where 21,284 spent fuel assemblies (SFAs) from Units 1-3 are stored. Over the next 10 years, plans call for transferring the fuel to dry casks supplied by Holtec International, but that operation was only licensed last year so it's unlikely that many SFAs are now in dry storage, considered safer than pool storage.

The IAEA and the Ukrainian regulator agreed that the power loss "would not have a critical impact on essential safety functions at the site," the IAEA said in a Thursday update on the situation. "Specifically, regarding the site’s spent fuel storage facility, the volume of cooling water in the pool is sufficient to maintain effective heat removal from the spent fuel without a supply of electricity," and there are diesel generators and batteries for backup power. "Nevertheless, the lack of power is likely to lead to a further deterioration of operational radiation safety at the site and create additional stress for around 210 technical experts and guards who have not been able to rotate for the past two weeks, in effect living there around the clock."

Topics:
Military Conflict, Nuclear Fuel, Nuclear, Ukraine Crisis
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