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What Could Happen In The Event Of An Attack On Ukrainian Nuclear Plant

What Could Happen In The Event Of An Attack On Ukrainian Nuclear Plant

The Zaporizhzhia power plant became a source of much concern last week as fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces broke out

On March 3, the Russian invasion of Ukraine reached a particularly dangerous flashpoint when a battle broke out at the Zaporizhzhia power station, Europe’s largest nuclear plant.

Amid the fighting in the night, a fire broke out at a nearby training centre and forces exchanged gunfire within the grounds of the facility.

You can see footage from the moment of the attack below:

While the worst-case scenario – a hit on the reactors full of radioactive material – was avoided, Zaporizhzhia is far from the only nuclear plant within Ukraine, and situations like this could occur again in the near future as Russia continues to bombard its near neighbour.

Now, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists – a group of experts responsible for the annual setting of the Doomsday Clock – have explained what might happen in the event that an attack on a nuclear power plant happens again.

'There’s a number of ways this can go very bad,' Allison Macfarlane, a former chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said.

Among those ways are a direct hit on the reactors from a missile that causes damage, a strike on a pool filled with cooling nuclear fuel, or any change that affects the electrical supply or cooling systems of the reactor.

The effects of any one of those could release highly carcinogenic radiation into the nearby areas and potentially beyond, depending on the severity.

A training centre at the plant caught fire. (Getty)
A training centre at the plant caught fire. (Getty)

Robert Rosner, a University of Chicago physicist and former chair of the Bulletin’s Science and Security board, believes a strike on a pool in which spent fuel is cooling represents the biggest risk.

He explained that such pools are usually less protected than reactors, making this scenario a more likely one.

'A missile hitting the spent fuel pool would be really pretty bad news,' he said.

While some have drawn obvious comparisons with the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl, there are more significant differences between the two plants.

The newer plant has advanced containment structures, and doesn’t use graphite as a moderating material.

At Chernobyl, the graphite caught fire, causing the radioactive material to spread across Europe.

'In this case it’s just the explosion that spreads (radioactive material),' Rosner continued, 'so this material is not going to get very high in the atmosphere.'

However, nuclear expert MV Ramana from the University of British Columbia warned that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy may not have been exaggerating when he speculated that an attack on Zaporizhzhia could be worse than Chernobyl.

Security footage showed the firefight between Ukrainian and Russian fighters. (Getty)
Security footage showed the firefight between Ukrainian and Russian fighters. (Getty)

He said: 'Everything could have been possible, right? In hindsight, you might look at and say, ‘Oh, they were not really targeting the reactor.’ But we don’t really know.

'Had the battle gone on in a different way, it’s quite possible that they may have hit something much more sensitive.'

Whatever the circumstances, a strike on the reactor itself could cause huge issues.

Macfarlane continued: 'If you hit the reactor vessel itself… and you punctured it or something, you’d lose water, and you’d have a loss of coolant event and melt the fuel.

'I assume you would breach the containment as well, and then you’d definitely have a massive release of radiation.'

Now, if the electricity was to be turned off somehow, the diesel generators at the plant would kick in.

If those generators were also compromised, the situation could deteriorate.

Ramana said: 'In the event that the grid fails, then usually there are diesel generators on site, and these supply backup power.

'But if these are occupied through military action, one can easily imagine these being damaged as well, in which case there may be an absence of cooling completely. And that could lead to a meltdown, sort of what we saw in Fukushima.'

The site of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. (Alamy)
The site of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. (Alamy)

There are other factors at play, too. Stressed workers and nuclear power plants are a recipe for disaster, Macfarlane explained.

She added that workers might ‘decide to go and protect their families’ in times of war. The expert explained: 'These reactors are different from natural gas plants because they need a lot of care and attention. I mean, you can imagine lots of different scenarios where you’ve got problems.'

While Zaporizhzhia is under Russian control, there are three other plants that aren’t yet, meaning that they could become the subject of further attacks.

'This is uncharted territory,' explained Ramana. 'We have never had so many reactors in a battle zone. The act of attacking a reactor should not be within the purview of any military plan.'

If you would like to donate to the Red Cross Emergency Appeal, which will help provide food, medicines and basic medical supplies, shelter and water to those in Ukraine, click here for more information 

Featured Image Credit: Getty

Topics: Ukraine, Russia, World News