Safety of Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant hangs in the balance
Guardian, Julian Borger 13 Dec 22,
Shelling near the six-reactor facility plus a shortage of workers and uncertain backup power could be making it the most dangerous place on Earth…….
The Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant’s silhouette – with its two fat cooling towers and the row of six squat blocks – has become globally familiar since it was dubbed the most dangerous place on Earth: six nuclear reactors on the frontline of a catastrophic war.
On a fairly typical night last week, the Russians on the left bank of the river fired 40 shells and rockets into Nikopol, a town on the Ukrainian-held right bank, falling on its rows of krushchevky, five-storey blocks of flats built for factory workers in the 1960s and named after the Soviet leader of the time.
After 10 months of war, the blocks are half empty, so there are fewer people to kill. The only reported casualty on this particular night was a 65-year-old man who was taken to hospital, and whose flat now afforded such a comprehensive view of the power plant.
By the next morning, the repairs had already begun. An electrician restored power to the rest of the building, and two men were in the remains of the apartment itself, sweeping up and putting chipboard in place of absent walls.
There were four loud bangs as the Ukrainian army guns on the nearby riverbank opened fire on Russian positions and, a few minutes later, Nikopol’s air sirens sounded in anticipation of a Russian response, though none was forthcoming that morning.
The basements of the krushchevky have been turned into shelters with beds and school desks but most of the remaining population are so inured to bombardment, they just carry on with their day.
The Ukrainians insist they are extremely careful about what they shoot at, even when they receive fire from the vicinity of the Zaporizhzhia plant. On Thursday, the Ukrainian nuclear power company, Energoatom, accused Russia of bringing Grad multiple launch rocket systems near reactor number 6, which is near the area of where spent nuclear fuel is kept. The likely aim, Energoatom alleged, was to shell Nikopol and the nearby town of Marzanets, using their position as cover.
The walls of the reactors are thick enough to withstand artillery fire, but a direct hit on the spent fuel containers could well lead to the release of radioactive material into the atmosphere. Since seizing control of the power station in March, the Russians have begun building a concrete shelter over the spent fuel, but Ukrainian officials say it is being done without following the normal international safety protocols.
Earlier in the week, Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, accused Ukraine of “nuclear terrorism”, saying its armed forces had fired 33 large calibre shells at the Zaporizhzhia plant over the previous two weeks. The most recent report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has four inspectors at the Russian-occupied site, said last Friday there had been no shelling of the plant since 20 November, although artillery fire had landed in the vicinity………………………………………..
It was not possible to verify Kotin and Orlov’s accounts of the shelling, or the counter-claims from Moscow. Satellite imagery however, has confirmed that the Russian army is storing military equipment inside the plant.
The IAEA inspectors on site could theoretically determine the trajectory of incoming rockets or shells but such detective work is not within their mandate. The agency is negotiating the creation of a security no-fire zone around the reactors, but Kyiv is insisting Russia must first withdraw all its weapons and armour from the power station, something Moscow has not so far agreed to.
Meanwhile there is a parallel safety threat from within the plant itself: the steady attrition of its workforce over the 10 months of the conflict. Many key workers have left because of the danger to their families or because they refused to work for the Russians. Of the 11,000-strong workforce before the full-scale invasion, just 4,000 are left. In an attempt to stop the exodus, the Russians have circulated lists of plant staff to all military checkpoints in the region with orders they are not be allowed to leave, but it has been too late to stop a major outflow.
“In some cases, there’s only three people to cover a seven or eight-person shift,” Orlov said. “People don’t have enough rest. It causes exhaustion.”
Operating under armed occupation adds to the stress. The workers still at the plant are under constant pressure to sign contracts with Rosatom, the Russian energy company, signifying acceptance of Moscow’s control.
Melynchuk said there were just enough staff left to maintain the plant in its current state of suspended animation, with all the reactors shut down, and two of them deliberately kept hot, to provide heating for Enerhodar.
But keeping reactors in this hot standby mode is a difficult and delicate process, adding to the burden on the operators. The situation could get worse still. The Zaporizhzhia plant is currently connected to the Ukrainian grid, but there have been times the transmission lines have been brought down by shelling, forcing the power station to fall back on diesel generators to keep the cooling system running and prevent the reactor vessel from meltdown.
If the connection to the grid was severed again, it would add to the pressure on the overstretched workforce and on the generators, which were only designed as a temporary backup. They will need maintenance and no one knows how much diesel fuel the plant has left. Once the diesel generators failed, meltdown would begin in a matter of hours……… https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/dec/12/safety-of-zaporizhzhia-nuclear-plant-hangs-in-the-balance
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