Ukrainian nuclear power plants face uncertain future after Russian attacks

Attacks on Ukraine’s power grid have knocked the country’s 15 nuclear reactors out of service for the first time ever. Russia also retains control of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe.


| Analysis

November 25, 2022

Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plan

The occupied nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia, September 11

Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Ukraine’s nuclear power plants have been caught, politically and literally, in the crossfire since the start of the Russian invasion. But this week, for the first time in history, its 15 nuclear reactors were taken out of service by fighting.

The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant (ZNPP), near the Ukrainian town of Enerhodar, is the largest nuclear power plant in Europe and has been in Russian hands since March. The final working reactor at ZNPP was closed in september as a precaution. Nuclear power plants supply electricity to the grid when operating, but when shut down they actually draw power from it to run vital cooling and safety systems, which means that the disruption of electricity supply is a major concern.

On 23 November, the bombardment of electricity infrastructure in Ukraine by Russian troops led to power cuts which caused the start-up of emergency diesel generators at ZNPP, as well as in the reactors of the three other Ukrainian nuclear power plants which had previously weathered the war with relatively little disruption. .

In a statement posted on its website, Ukrainian nuclear operator Energoatom said that for the first time in the 40-year history of Ukraine’s nuclear power industry, all of its nuclear power plants did not produce electricity, but instead relied on diesel backup generators. Access to the national network resumed on November 25.

The ZNPP’s six nuclear reactors, all fueled by uranium 235, are vital infrastructure to which Rosatom, the Russian nuclear energy company, has clung to since the early days of the invasion. Reports suggest that Rosatom is trying to force the factory’s Ukrainian staff to sign new contracts and join their own staff, which the the majority refuses. The director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Mariano Grossi, says that this puts “unacceptable pressureon staff.

Latest social media rumors suggest that the ZNPP could be returned to Ukraine as part of concessions intended to prevent a major counter-offensive against Russian forces. These rumors have been given at least some credence by the IAEA claim this week that he was holding high-level consultations with Russia on the implementation of a “nuclear safety and security protection zone” around the ZNPP. Exactly what that would entail is unclear, and the IAEA did not respond to a request for comment.

Jacopo Buongiorno of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says he is skeptical of Russia returning anything of value to Ukraine, but if it did, lengthy preparations would be needed before the plant can be restored to working order.

“Restarting the factory would be a long-term job. Think months, not weeks,” he says. “There is equipment and structures to repair, spare parts to acquire, personnel to bring back and new personnel to hire and train. A few reactors may be in good enough condition to restart sooner, but full capacity will likely take months. »

He says four of the ZNPP’s reactors are in “cold shutdown” and completely idle, while two are kept in “hot shutdown”, a sort of standby mode. Getting those two back in working order would take months, even if the war ended tomorrow and Energoatom regained control. Buongiorno says the plant is operating with a “slim” workforce and vital spare parts will not have been delivered at the optimal rate.

Olena Pareniuka scientist working at the Chernobyl site, says the process of restarting a nuclear power plant is long and difficult, but the energy supply is sorely needed for Ukrainian citizens, who are experiencing widespread blackouts across the country.

“It will not be [come in time to] help us get through the winter,” she said. Equipment will need to be checked, which is work that cannot be rushed, she says. “Energoatom says it will be fast, but nuclear grade ‘fast’.”

Bruno Merck at the University of Liverpool in the UK says Russia is “currently doing everything to destroy Ukraine’s energy infrastructure” and that even a retreating Russian occupation could cause problems upon its exit, rendering it unusable without Rosatom’s support and its suppliers. “They could destroy tiny critical components that can only be replaced by the manufacturer, and I don’t see if the manufacturer would be willing to deliver that in wartime,” he says.

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