Ukraine: Zaporozhye Personnel Stuck In Impossible Quandary

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Moscow fully intends to utilize the Russian-occupied Zaporozhye nuclear power plant plant for Ukrainian territory it now controls, and possibly for power supplies to Russia itself, according to knowledgeable expert observers in both Ukraine and Russia. These experts agree that neither side wants a catastrophe, but they admit such an outcome cannot be ruled out given the sheer amount of military activity in the vicinity and the utterly unconducive working environment for plant personnel. This helps explain why Russian and even some Ukrainian experts approve of the presence of Rosatom officials at the plant and believe that international observers should carry out a visit. The exact constituency of such an observer mission, however, is a very touchy matter.

Statements out of Russia, as well as Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, suggest that Moscow will not give back any territories it has seized and may even annex them, much as it did with Crimea in 2014. Regardless, these regions will require a low-cost power source, and the 6,000 megawatt Zaporozhye nuclear power plant has more than enough to go around. "As far as the Zaporozhye plant 'everything is clear,'" said a Moscow-based observer. "It'll be delinked from the Ukrainian grid, which is why the shooting started there. The likeliest result is a draw, and the plant will be shut. So it won't work for either Kyiv or for the southeastern [Ukrainian] regions" under Russian control, the observer said.

This week Zaporozhye was temporarily de-linked from the power grid. This underlined a key concern of Ukrainian observers: that Russian authorities will attempt to redirect the output of the plant, which at the start of the week was operating only Units 5 and 6. Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine include multiple power demand centers, from large towns such as Melitopol, Berdyansk and Mariupol on the northern coast of the Sea of Azov, to the besieged Kherson to the west and then in the south Crimea itself. That combined region likely can't soak up the total output of Zaporozhye's six reactors, however, meaning a Russian-occupied plant would have to find a way to sell kilowatts across the divide to Ukrainian controlled territory, or to Russia itself. For now there is no grid connection between southeastern Ukraine and the Russian region of Rostov, but experts don’t rule out that such a link would be eventually built.

Uncomfortable Moral Calculus for Plant Operators

What is crucial to understand is that removing the plant from Ukrainian control and using it to power occupied regions would put Zaporozhye staff in extreme moral duress. Authorities in Kyiv are likely to consider this to be an act of treason, with all the attendant consequences. On the other hand, if plant managers refuse to do Moscow’s bidding, they and their families risk reprisals from Russian forces.

For as Ukrainian experts argue, without the current Zaporozhye personnel, Russia cannot operate the plant. Zaporozhye's six VVER-1000s may be Russian technology, but over recent years they have undergone such extensive upgrades that managers from similar reactors in Russia could not conceivably operate the Zaporozhye units, Ukrainians say. Most notably, Soviet-era instrumentation and control systems have been replaced with state-of-the-art imported systems, and radiation control and post-accident monitoring (black box) systems have been modernized.

Nearly 1,300 separate modernization measures were slated at the country’s 15 nuclear reactors as part of the Complex Program for Security Enhancement that started several years ago, and as of last December, some 1,048 were completed, according to reports citing Energoatom. Given the scope of these changes and how drastically they have altered plant technology, "Rosatom officials have no business" going anywhere near the Zaporozhye control rooms, said one Ukrainian expert.

Vital Liaison

And yet Rosatom’s presence at the plant is necessary, experts from both sides concur, since only they can competently serve as a liaison between plant managers/operators and troops based on site. Rosatom officials do not want to interfere with plant operations, the Moscow-based observer said, "but their presence is mandatory since the Ukrainian personnel are in a very complicated predicament. They're under pressure from Kyiv, and the situation is unpredictable. If Rosatom folks aren't there, then the communication between Ukrainian personnel and Russian military would be very difficult."

Some Ukrainian observers give a similar assessment. Only professional nuclear officials from Russia can "dial down" the tension between plant staff and armed soldiers in camouflage. According to the Ukrainians those soldiers have threatened employees and even confiscated their passes so that outsiders — ostensibly officials from Russia — can enter closed areas of the Zaporozhye complex.

Meanwhile, both Ukraine and Russia — not to mention the global community — await the arrival of a mission from the International Atomic Energy Agency, which could take place as soon as next week. However, both sides have completely different expectations: Moscow wants to demonstrate that its troops are not a hindrance to plant operations, while Kyiv intends to prove to mission members that Zaporozhye staff are stuck in an impossibly stressful situation. Meanwhile the Ukrainians fear that Moscow will conceal troops and tidy up the premises during the mission, which may not be given access to employees whom Russian soldiers have hassled, if not worse.

This is why Ukrainian authorities are insisting that not a single Russian citizen be included in the mission. They cannot be trusted, the Ukrainians claim. But given the sheer number of Russians in the IAEA, as well as the World Association of Nuclear Operators, this makes compiling an expert group of observers rather complicated. As the Ukrainians point out, it took Wano five months to release a statement about the situation around the Zaporozhye plant, and even then it failed to mention the presence of "occupying forces."

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