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How dangerous are attacks on Ukraine's nuclear plants?

Mikhail Bushuev
March 15, 2022

Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia: Attacks on Ukrainian nuclear plants are sparking panic not just in Ukraine. Experts call for a more measured approach and better crisis communication.

A flare landing at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant
Potential damage at the Zaporizhzhya plant is more dangerous than ChernobylImage: Zaporizhzhya NPP/REUTERS

Chernobyl needs electricity. The remaining fuel rods still need cooling with electricity, 36 years after the accident at the nuclear power plant. And that is a problem in the face of the war in Ukraine. Power had barely been restored to the former power plant, which came under fire on Monday, when the Ukrainian state-owned grid operator Ukrenergo announced that the repaired power line had been damaged again by Russian forces. 

In the Telegram channel of the Ukrainian operator Energoatomt, it said that its staff were no longer able to carry on because they were "physically and psychologically exhausted."

Since February 24, the Russian army has  attacked three nuclear plants , including the biggest one still operational in Europe, Zaporizhzhia. That assault took place on March 4.

This Monday, Energoatom said the Russian army had placed munition in close proximity to the first reactor and detonated it. DW was unable to verify this account.

Attacks on atomic power plants serve the purpose of spreading fear about a nuclear catastrophe, Anna Veronika Wendland told DW. The research coordinator at the Herder Institute for Historical Research on East Central Europe is an expert in the history of technology and eastern Europe and an advocate of the peaceful use of atomic power.

The ruins of Chernobyl

Aside from fearmongering, Wendland says, "the taking over of infrastructure objects is the second factor that plays a big role for the Russian side." She believes that the fear sparked internationally by such attacks is partly exaggerated or counterproductive.

The historian thinks the public should be better informed about the possible damage and the risks relating to Chernobyl, for example. The last remaining reactor at the site of the nuclear disaster was shut down over 20 years ago.

"The some 1,900 fuel rods, which still have to be cooled in Chernobyl have been out of the reactor for almost 21 years," she explains. Their decay heat is, correspondingly, very low, "so that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and other experts agree that they do not represent an acute danger."

Wendland explains that the plant has a functional emergency energy generator that runs off diesel and can keep the cooling systems operational for about 48 hours. But even if this supply failed, there would be up to 14 days' time approximately to restore the energy supply.

'Unacceptable situation'

The worst scenario, according to an EU stress test, would be that the water in the pool containing the spent fuel rods heated up to 70 degrees Celsius. The atomic watchdog, IAEA, therefore does not regard the situation in Chernobyl as acutely critical.

Shattered windows and a wrecked room that looks out on to a ferris wheel
The abandoned city of Pripyat close to Chernobyl nuclear power plantImage: Skyba Anton Vladimirovich

Nevertheless, Wendland is at pains to make clear that "occupying a nuclear facility, cutting off its communications to the outside world and cutting it off from its supervisory body and taking its staff hostage is an irregular and an unacceptable situation."

But she points out that the dangers are much higher at Zaporizhzhia, which is connected to two high voltage grids. For her post-doctoral project she studied a comparable atomic power plant in Rivne in northwestern Ukraine.  

Situation in Zaporizhzhia very different

In Zaporizhzhia, she says, the fuel for the emergency supply of electricity would last for about seven to nine days. If these systems failed it would be extremely problematic, according to the expert, and could quickly develop into a similar scenario to the one in Fukushima.

In the case of a disaster, the fuel rods would heat up "to 70-80 degrees within 11 to 15 hours." Wendland stressed that these figures meant that the situation was very different from Chernobyl, but she stressed that we were not at that juncture.

Ruins of the Chernobyl plant
The 1986 Chernobyl tragedy was the world's first big nuclear accident Image: picture-alliance/AP

Her conclusion: It is imperative to first describe the situation as part of the crisis communications. She thinks that this is precisely what did not happen after the Russian attack on Zaporizhzhia.

"During the night one false report followed the next. That same night, the Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and President Zelenskyy got out some very big words. There was talk of a mega nuclear accident on a scale of six Chernobyls. I can understand that the government in Kyiv is under enormous pressure. It is screaming for help. But decisionmakers and leaders like that have to know that this is not the right way to do crisis communications."

The result was, Wendland is certain, that "people in Germany began to visit pharmacies looking for iodine tablets. In the end, it will only lead to a desolidarization effect along the lines of: 'Dear Ukrainians, please stop offering resistance so that we do not have to suffer any pain'."

This article has been translated from German.

Edited by: Andreas Illmer

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