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Playing with atomic fire in Ukraine

BY ISTVAN DOBOZI

October 1, 2022

Ukraine has already experienced how dangerous a nuclear power plant can be. In 1986, the world’s worst nuclear accident took place at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant (NPP) in Ukraine when a reactor core melted after a series of explosions. Amazingly, the accident did not set back the country’s nuclear electricity sector. Its total capacity remains among the largest in the world. At four NPPs, fifteen active Soviet-designed reactors generate more than half of Ukraine’s electric power. These units are incomparably safer than the Chernobyl reactors that were all closed.

While serving as an employee of the World Bank, I visited the 6,000-megawatt nuclear facility near the city of Zaporizhzhia in southeastern Ukraine while preparing two thermal power rehabilitation projects in that region. It is the largest NPP in Europe, and a key component of Ukraine’s energy security. So it was no coincidence that Russian forces seized the complex shortly after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in late February. Russia apparently has set its sight on the South Ukraine Nuclear Power Plant as well, which is the second largest nuclear facility in Ukraine. In March 2022, Russian troops were advancing to the plant but were repelled. In mid-September, the nuclear facility was reportedly hit by Russian artillery. The reactors were not damaged.

At the international level, this was the first time a country had captured another state’s NPP, effectively turning it into a military base in a war zone. Unfortunately, there are no effective international regulations that address the possibility of warfare at an NPP. The Zaporizhzhia plant staffed by Ukrainians under strict Russian supervision continues to operate at partial capacity.

What are the Kremlin’s purposes with the Zaporizhzhia NPP? The ultimate objective is its annexation along with the Donbass region, the scene of ferocious fighting in the past six months. Russia will likely disconnect the plant from the Ukrainian grid and use it to supply electricity to Crimea and other occupied territories. But the immediate aim is military: the Russians use the plant for cover as they fire on Ukrainian targets in the region.

Moscow and Kyiv accuse each other of shelling the plant and its surroundings where there have been numerous explosions. Luckily none of the six reactors has been damaged so far. Obviously, this situation is fraught with potentially catastrophic consequences, including the risk of radioactive radiation being triggered by a possible reactor meltdown due to a fatal failure of the cooling system.

According to the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a global nuclear safety watchdog, the Zaporizhzhia power plant has become completely uncontrollable, the basic principles of nuclear safety are being violated on a daily basis at the facility. So what should be done?

Since there have been no meaningful recent negotiations between the warring parties for quite some time, the ideal solution would be for the United Nations to reach a deal with Russia to withdraw its troops from the nuclear plant given the clear high public health and environmental risks posed by fighting around the facility. The plant’s operation could then be managed by an independent commission within a demilitarized zone.

Until stable operating conditions can be re-established at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, there is an urgent need to implement the interim measures – proposed by IAEA experts after their recent trip to the facility – to prevent a nuclear accident arising from physical damage caused military means.

If Moscow is unwilling to cooperate constructively, an extension of Western sanctions on Rosatom, Russia’s giant, state-owned nuclear company, should be considered. The fact is that Rosatom representatives are present at the Zaporizhzhia plant, and they are participating in its management.

To a large extent, Rosatom’s revenues are foreign sourced, and foreign sanctions would be financially painful for company. Rosatom has contracts with dozens of countries – including China, India, Egypt, Turkey, Finland, Hungary – for the construction of Russian-designed nuclear power plants. Finland has already taken action by canceling its contract with Rosatom for the construction of a new nuclear power plant. Is that an example for other nations to follow?

 

Istvan Dobozi is a former Lead Energy Economist at the World Bank, and managed the organization’s power sector operations in Ukraine. In the 1990s, he participated in the bank’s nuclear safety study project led by Harold Wackman. The project was commissioned by the G7, covering Ukraine and five other former socialist countries operating high-risk, Soviet-designed nuclear reactors. For years, Mr. Dobozi represented the bank in the G7 Nuclear Safety Working Group.

 


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