Ukraine: Russian Attacks Disconnect Khmelnitski From Grid

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A second nuclear power plant in Ukraine was forced off the grid this week due to air attacks in the Russian invasion of the country. The Nov. 15 air attacks knocked out connections to the external power grid of the Khmelnitski nuclear power plant, forcing the four-unit plant to rely on backup diesel generators for nine hours before grid connection was restored. The incident echoes the barrage of intermittent missile fire at the larger Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, where the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is closer to securing a security zone.

The Nov. 15 attacks came as IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi claimed to be closing in on an agreement for a security zone at Zaporizhzhia, and underlined the sobering fact that even if such an agreement is reached, broader nuclear safety concerns will remain as long as the war continues. The Ukraine war entered a brutal new phase a month ago, as Moscow started bombing critical infrastructure across Ukraine in response to a successful Oct. 8 Ukrainian attack on the Crimean Bridge. The Russisan bombing campaign is now impacting the operation of Ukraine's nine operating power reactors, beyond the six-unit Zaporizhzhia plant that was occupied by Russian forces in early March — in the opening days of the current war — and illegally expropriated by the Russian government on Oct. 5.

"Since the beginning of October, this is the sixth massive attack on the country's energy infrastructure, this time the largest: about a hundred missiles," Volodymyr Kudrytskyi, chairman of Ukraine's power grid operator Ukrenergo, said in a Nov. 15 statement. "Each missile flew with the aim of plunging Ukraine into darkness."

In the case of Khmelnitski, which is home to four Soviet-supplied VVER-1000 reactors, the four power lines connecting the plant to the outside grid were progressively lost over 2½ hours on Nov. 15, until all grid connections were cut by 6:35 p.m. The plant was forced to rely on diesel generators for backup power, and two reactors were shut down. But Ukraine's grid workers are efficient at repairing damaged transmission lines, and by 3:45 am the next morning — nine hours after the plant lost external power supplies — Khmelnitski was reconnected to two 330 kilovolt backup power lines.

The Nov. 15 attack also caused the four-unit Rovno nuclear plant to lose one of its 750 kV power lines, prompting operator Energoatom to reduce the plant's output and disconnect one of its units. This means that all four of Ukraine's operating nuclear plants have now been impacted by fighting; in the early hours of Sep. 19 a missile exploded near the three-unit South Ukraine plant, blowing out 100 windows and impacting three power lines at the site. But Khmelnitski appears to be the first plant beyond Zaporizhzhia forced to rely on emergency diesel generators for its power thanks to attacks on the grid.

"This was a very concerning development," Grossi said in a Nov. 16 statement, as it "shows the potential nuclear safety and security risks facing all of Ukraine’s nuclear facilities during this terrible war, not just" Zaporizhzhia. "While offsite power is now back" at Khmelnitski, "yesterday’s power loss clearly demonstrates that the nuclear safety and security situation in Ukraine can suddenly take a turn for the worse, increasing the risk of a nuclear emergency."

On Nov. 17 the IAEA Board of Governors passed a resolution sponsored by Canada and Finland calling on Russia to "cease all actions against and at nuclear facilities in Ukraine" and refusing to recognize any Russian ownership of Zaporizhzhia. The resolution was approved by 24 board members, with China and Russia opposed. But key board members were pushing for further actions in Vienna beyond just the resolution.

"Russia is solely responsible for the nuclear safety and security issues in Ukraine and for putting at risk the safety of millions who would be affected by a nuclear incident," UK Ambassador Corinne Kitsell told the board, while her US counterpart Laura Holgate explained that the US was now coordinating with the IAEA secretariat to assure that "to the maximum extent practicable" US-contributed extrabudgetary funding not fund "direct participation of Russian officials in IAEA activities." Holgate said "we hope others will join us to apply pressure on Russia, beyond the adoption of today’s board resolution."

Inching Toward a Zaporizhzhia Security Zone

Meanwhile at Zaporizhzhia, Grossi claims that a deal for a security zone might be close. "If we can have the zone, which I really hope will be the case, you will not discover a 24-page agreement with annexes," Grossi said in a Nov. 16 press conference. "It’s a very simple thing that will reflect a very serious political commitment of both sides to stop something which is still taking place." And "what we are proposing is very simple: don’t shoot at the plant, don’t shoot from the plant." More specifically Grossi said that the main issues still to be resolved are "related to the military equipment" at or near the plant or are "related to the radius of the zone."

But while such an agreement would lessen the risks of major catastrophe at Zaporizhzhia, it addresses only one pillar of the seven pillars of nuclear safety during conflicts that Grossi outlined earlier this year: physical integrity. Other pillars include secure offsite power supply from the grid — something that has now been lost at both Zaporizhzhia and Khmelnitski, and that has been threatened at South Ukraine and Rovno — and the ability of operating staff to fulfill their safety and security duties, with the capacity to make decisions free of undue pressure.

That pillar has been undermined by the Russian occupation and expropriation of Zaporizhzhia, and this would likely not be ameliorated by a security zone. The impossible situation facing Zaporizhzhia staff was highlighted by the IAEA in a Nov. 14 note, issued before this week's massive attacks, reporting on an internal plant conflict last week. Zaporizhzhia staff proposed starting Zaporizhzhia-6 to provide more steam while not producing electricity, and this request was approved by Ukraine's nuclear regulator in Kyiv. But the Russian operating organization in place since last month refused to allow the restart, and Unit 6 remained in hot shutdown.

The Ukrainian staff at Zaporizhzhia "are carrying out their vital tasks under constant pressure," which "can have a negative impact on nuclear safety and security and increase the risk of a nuclear accident," said Grossi. "Exacerbating the situation, they are now also faced with conflicting instructions on how to run the plant."

For more coverage of the Ukraine crisis, visit Ukraine Crisis: Energy Impact >

Nuclear, Military Conflict, Ukraine Crisis
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