Will it explode or not: what is going on at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear station

Will it explode or not: what is going on at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear station

Was it possible to avoid today's danger and why it has not been done

Will it explode or not: what is going on at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear station
Image: UNIAN

It was only a matter of time before the situation at Zaporizhzhya NPP, occupied since March 4, would move the world political community from a state of deep concern to an even deeper one. More than two months ago, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi warned that Zaporizhzhya NPP had almost completely violated almost all possible standards of safe operation, and the plant could not operate like that.

After all, no matter what “Energoatom” writes in its daily report, the fact remains: the personnel are working under frenzied pressure at the risk of their lives, there are armed occupiers at the plant, military equipment and ammunition in the turbine halls, the logistics for repairs is broken. But most importantly, no one in the world knows what to do in such a situation. What is happening with the plant, what risks does it carry, whether they can be prevented (and when), and whether Ukraine is taking any precautions, Mind sorted out.

Nuclear power all over the world works exceptionally in line with the instructions. Plus, constant monitoring and self-control, regulated by the basics of safety culture. It was the nuclear scientists who came up with the STAR principle:  S- stop, T – think, A – act, R – review. That is, even when following the instructions, one still has to stop, think and check the actions.

But there are no instructions for the operation of a nuclear power plant in conditions where there is a bunch of invaders armed to the teeth with a brain scorched with propaganda, alcohol and drugs. It is impossible for any nuclear professional in the world to imagine this. Except for the personnel of Zaporizhzhya NPP and Chernobyl NPP.

That is why, it is surprising that since March 4 – the date of the capture of Europe's largest nuclear power plant in operation – the world nuclear community has not got organized under the auspices of the IAEA, WENRA (Western European Regulators Association) or WANO (World Association of Nuclear Power Plant Operators). And it has not worked out any specific steps and proposals: for the leadership of the Ukrainian state, for “Energoatom” and the State Nuclear Regulatory Authority – the operator of Ukrainian nuclear power plants and the nuclear regulator of Ukraine.  

So what is going on today? The same as in March. Demands from everyone to everyone: withdraw troops, demilitarize, impose new sanctions, etc. – all those efforts that do not even require a hypothetical answer to the questions: “How to do this?” and “When will it work?”.

The cynicism of the situation is that on Tuesday, August 2 (and new shelling of ZNPP began on Friday, August 5), Ukrainian Energy Minister Herman Halushchenko complained to the American publication Politico about the inertia and bureaucratic procedures in the EU, which do not allow increasing electricity imports to Europe by 15 times in one fell swoop – from 100 to 1690 MW. Politico journalists note: “Halushchenko is aiming for more acceleration in the form of a weekly increase in electricity exports, but European operators follow their protocols.” And they add: “Ukraine's repeated statements about a possible nuclear accident, if Russia continues to control Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, bring the risk of undermining confidence in nuclear safety in Ukraine."

Last week, the EU agreed to increase imports from Ukraine to 250 MW. But less than a week later, on Tuesday, August 9, Ukrhydroenergo reported: the Dniester pumped storage power plant of PJSC Ukrhydroenergo was able to temporarily replace the power unit of Zaporizhzhya NPP that was disconnected on August 5 and avoid serious problems in the energy system. The always restrained head of Ukrhydroenergo, Igor Sirota, in his comment allowed himself to actually accuse the Ministry of Energy: go not for increasing exports, but to the stability of own energy system.

Why are we writing about the export of electricity when Zaporizhzhya NPP is actually under shelling? Because it is precisely due to the export that Energoatom, the State Nuclear Regulatory Authority and the Ministry of Energy cover up their unwillingness to stop the ZNPP power units

Immediately after the ZNPP had been occupied, Ukrainian top-ranking professionals Mykola Shteinberg (head of the nuclear regulatory agency of Ukraine in 1991–1995, member of the IAEA Board of Governors) and Viktor Shenderovych (till recently, chief engineer at the Energoproekt Kyiv Institute that have designed NPP in and not just in Ukraine) stated: keeping the Zaporizhzhia plant where hostilities go on at capacity is a crime.  

Here is what Steinberg said, speaking at the April INUDECO conference “Challenges of Ukraine's Nuclear Power in Wartime”:

“More than 31 years ago I had to deal with the similar situation. At that time, on the eve of the Soviet Union collapse, there were many different meetings taking place in Europe with the topic on the safety assessment of our nuclear power plants, and the planning of works in this direction. We usually gathered in the lobby of the hotel, and then went together to the meeting room where we worked. One day, I do not remember when, but in the morning I go out, I see a TV, and on it – a small river and a bridge across the river. There are two trucks on one side, one of them is a fuel truck. Two tanks are on the other side. Suddenly a shot comes from the tank, the fuel truck explodes. I do not understand anything. My colleague, the head of the regulatory body of Slovenia, comes up to me and says: this is in Slovenia, the Serbs attacked. And then he tells me a phrase that struck me: a few kilometers from here, there is the Krshko nuclear power plant. I asked him, in what condition the plant was. He says – it is in operation. I tell him: stop the plant and cool it down at the emergency rate.”

Then they stopped. Cooled down. It worked out.

To date, two out of six power units are operating at ZNPP. Only three are cooled down. What does it mean? This means three potential Chernobyls.

We emphasize: potential, because there is a possibility that shells may hit the vital systems of power units, especially power units operating at power for the power system. We also have to take into account other potential threats, because the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine confirmed the media reports that Russian troops were mining ZNPP, which is already beyond everything possible to expect from an aggressor.

What would happen if all six reactors were cooled down? No threat of an accident comparable to the scale of the Chernobyl disaster. Of course, it would be better to do this in advance in order to reduce residual heat. Of course, in addition to six reactors, spent nuclear fuel storage pools are in the “red” zone.

Here is what the State Scientific and Technical Center for Nuclear and Radiation Safety (SSTC NRS) thinks about this (the conclusions of experts are at the disposal of the editors): “The largest margins of time before severe damage to nuclear fuel in the core are achieved in the “cold shutdown” state. According to experts, in the “cold shutdown” state, the time margin before severe damage to the core can be about 27 hours, while for the operational state “operation at power” it is only 3-4 hours. And in 27 hours (actually more, because there are additional opportunities to remove heat from the core), the personnel have time to prevent a severe accident. The SSTC NRS sent this document with the relevant calculations and recommendations to State Nuclear Regulatory Authority of Ukraine and NNEGC Energoatom back in May.

Georgiy Balakan, former adviser to the President of NNEGC Energoatom, who worked all his life in the company’s directorate and at South Ukraine NPP and resigned of his own accord after Y. Nedashkovsky’s resignation in December 2019, believes that ZNPP power units should be immediately transferred to the cold shutdown state, as required in case of any violation of the NPP safe operation conditions, which is provided for by the plant technical specifications in the event of loss of control over the NPP physical protection system.

He recalls that even with the hypothetical loss of all ZNPP power lines through which ZNPP can consume electricity for its own needs, there are standby diesel generators, and after their loss there are mobile power facilities.

And NNEGC “Energoatom” from the moment of ZNPP occupation should have been concerned not with the export of electricity, but with ensuring a safe “cold” state of all six power units of Zaporizhzhya NPP, the condition of diesel generators and the readiness of personnel for the emergence of risks caused by military threat and loss of physical protection of Zaporizhzhya NPP, as Mr. Balakan notes. And most importantly, with the humanitarian problems of saving the lives of the staff and residents of Energodar.

“ZNPP must be returned to the non-accident state for the personnel – physically, psychologically, mentally whole, willing to continue working at the Ukrainian Zaporizhzhya NPP,” the specialist notes.

Meanwhile, today the head of Energoatom said that the Russians are disconnecting ZNPP from the Ukrainian energy system and are trying to reconnect it to the Crimea. Interestingly, as early as July 25, he personally said: “If there is a threat of theft of electricity from the Ukrainian energy system or its supply from Zaporizhzhya NPP, appropriate measures will be taken in advance, which will need to be carried out by our Armed Forces, so that this never happens.”

The experts began sounding the alarm back in May. And the president of Energoatom categorically replied to them: “ZNPP is technically in the  Ukrainian energy system, which is now connected to the European energy system, not to the Russian or Belarusian one. Therefore, it is technically impossible to supply electricity from Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant to Russia today. In any case, if ZNPP produces electricity, which enters the energy system of Ukraine, it simply has nowhere to dissapear since the lines are controlled by our energy system operator Ukrenergo.

All this time, while the problem was hushed up, the Russian occupiers were working to make the impossible possible.

What do we have today? We have a warning from Energoatom about the threat of an accident identical to the one that occurred at Fukushima-1 nuclear power plant in case of a disconnection from the last power line connecting the Zaporizhzhya NPP with the energy system of Ukraine.

In fact, this risk could also have been prevented. At that, Petr Kotin himself, on the air of the United News telethon, noted: “All 20 diesel generators located at Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant will be turned on ... Everything will depend on the reliability of these diesel engines and sufficient amounts of fuel that are there for these diesel engines.” By the way, these are the diesels that Mind talked about the counterfeit spare parts two years ago. And talked about not once.

But telling about threats and likelihood of a new Fukushima, the president of Energoatom forgets to indicate his own role: what his company has done to prevent the tragedy. The task of the NPPs Operator is to be prepared in advance for the worst-case scenario, because it is him, according to the law, who is responsible for nuclear safety. And for the situation that three of the six million-plus power units have not yet been cooled down yet, despite the fact that specialists have already made all the necessary calculations and forecasts. By the way, pay attention: in a cold shutdown state, the nuclear power units not only threaten with the new Chernobyl or Fukushima, they also do not supply electricity to the Crimea.

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