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Europe's largest nuclear plant on fire after Russian attack
What to know and what not to panic about
Updated Fire broke out at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant – Europe's largest such facility and one of the biggest of its kind in the world – on Thursday after being shelled by Russian military, according to Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba.
He also warned the consequences of attacking the station could be dire:
Russian army is firing from all sides upon Zaporizhzhia NPP, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe. Fire has already broke out. If it blows up, it will be 10 times larger than Chornobyl! Russians must IMMEDIATELY cease the fire, allow firefighters, establish a security zone!— Dmytro Kuleba (@DmytroKuleba) March 4, 2022
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Kuleba's claims were mirrored in a Telegram post by Dmytro Orlov, mayor of a town called Enerhodar that is adjacent to the plant.
The blaze was mentioned in a readout of a Thursday conversation between United States President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
US outlet ABC News says Ukraine's consulate in San Francisco claimed the slow-motion video below depicts strikes on the plant:
BREAKING: video shared with me by the Ukrainian Consulate General here in SF shows Russian forces attacking a nuclear power plant in #Ukraine. It’s the largest NPP in Europe. If it blows, Ukrainian officials say it will be 10 times larger than Chernobyl @abc7newsbayarea pic.twitter.com/uxpSeq8R3E— Tim Johns (@tim_johns_) March 4, 2022
The International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Ukrainian authorities informed it Russian troops were "moving directly towards" the plant and that a battle was being waged at Enerhodar.
That multiplicity of sources leaves The Register with little doubt that Russian forces moved on Enerhodar and that the plant was assaulted.
Which is concerning because the station houses half a dozen reactors, and as recently as February 25, a day after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, four were operational, according to an archived status page from the plant's website. The facility also stores spent fuel – which is still radioactive – on site.
While Foreign Minister Kuleba raised the specter of a nuclear accident orders of magnitude worse than the Chernobyl catastrophe, The Register also has good reason to suggest a disaster of that nature is not imminent.
For starters, the Zaporizhzhia plant uses a different design to the infamously fragile Chernobyl facility, which exploded in 1986 during a test of low power in which safety measures were ignored.
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Ukraine has also conducted a nuclear safety upgrade and modernization program that was approved in 2011, then revised to incorporate lessons from that year's Fukushima incident and aimed to comply with international standards for nuclear plant safety. A 2020 report [PDF] indicated most improvements required under the plan had been completed.
As for the international standard on nuclear plant safety, here it is [PDF]. Among the requirements of that document are physical defense in depth, designed to prevent exposure of radioactive material during both operations and when confronted by "external hazards."
The standard asks designers and operators to consider "postulated initiating events" that "include all foreseeable failures of structures, systems and components of the plant, as well as operating errors and possible failures arising from internal and external hazards, whether in full power, low power or shutdown states."
Given Ukraine's testy relationship with Russia, kinetic warfare is a foreseeable external hazard, though your vultures cannot say for sure if the plant was designed specifically to resist it.
Happily, more recent reports suggest the fires that broke out have been extinguished, while real-time reporting of radiation levels indicates no increases.
US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm also said tonight: "The plant's reactors are protected by robust containment structures, and reactors are being safely shut down." She added that the Dept of Energy "has activated its Nuclear Incident Response Team and is monitoring events ... We have seen no elevated radiation readings near the facility."
And as mentioned, Ukrainian authorities have known for days that Russian forces were advancing on the plant, giving them plenty of notice to put it into a condition that would minimize the chances of radioactive material being exposed or an unwanted nuclear reaction from happening, and to prepare for a direct strike.
Consider, too, the plant's location and today's weather. Enerhodar is about 240km west of Donetsk, the region of Ukraine that Russia says is being oppressed and which it has used as justification for its deadly occupation. According to this report, winds in Enerhodar are forecast to blow from the west. If Russia damages the plant, it could poison the people it claims to be protecting.
Which may not be beyond Vladimir Putin, or could be lied about in myriad ways by his propaganda machines.
So while the blazes appear to be out, nuclear security – and the potential capture of a huge nuclear power plant – remains very much a facet of Russia's illegal, illogical, and inexplicable war on Ukraine. ®
Updated to add on March 4
United Nations and Ukrainian officials have confirmed no radiation was released from the attack on Europe's biggest nuclear power plant. Ukrainian firefighters said they had extinguished the blaze at the facility.
Additional reporting by Laura Dobberstein