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Local officials said Russia fired missiles at Ukrainian cities late on Wednesday, killing at least six people and destroying critical infrastructure in 10 regions.
The attack knocked out power in parts of Ukraine, including the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power station. Ukrainian grid operator Ukrenergo said the facility had been reconnected to the power grid by Thursday afternoon.
But this is not the first time the Russian-occupied plant has been forced to run on emergency generators. Experts say that even after six emergency shutdowns in Zaporizhzhya, the plant stands on the brink of a nuclear catastrophe.
Here’s a breakdown of where things stand.
First, a quick refresher on why Zaporizhzhya is so important
Zaporizhzhya is located in southern Ukraine and serves as Europe’s largest nuclear power plant. Running at full capacity, the plant is capable of generating 6,000 MW of electricity.
Russian forces captured Zaporizhzhya a year ago this month, but a war-weary, under-staffed Ukrainian team continues to exert control.
Shelling has since damaged the plant at least six times, temporarily cutting four high-voltage power lines that connect Zaporizhia to Ukraine’s energy grid.
Power lines are essential to the plant’s safety and cooling systems—the longer the plant is without power, the greater the likelihood of a possible nuclear meltdown.
The plant has the ability to generate its own electricity, but, as a former Zaporozhzhia engineer told NPR’s Geoff Brumfield, it’s not a sustainable long-term solution. Often the plant will switch to diesel-powered emergency generators, but they too have limits based on fuel quantity.
And to top it all: It looks like Kremlin soldiers are slowly draining the reservoir that is the source of water that is pumped through the plant’s core to keep temperatures down.
So the specter of a possible nuclear meltdown hangs over every minute of the war.
The latest shutdown came as talks over the plant reached an impasse
Ukraine’s Energy Minister Herman Galushchenko said Wednesday night’s attacks on Zaporizhia marked a remarkable turning point.
Galushchenko says he is trying to negotiate with Russian leaders to demilitarize the plant, and in a nationally televised address this weekend, he told Ukrainians that talks reached a dead end. Was.
“The situation was brought to a standstill. Our position, which we voice at all international forums, is that any negotiations on the ZNPP should be based on: first, the plant’s monetization,” he said. “But in response to this, we received [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s null and void order that the ZNPP is ‘federal’ property.”
He said he believes the Kremlin’s ultimate goal is to leave Zaporizhia “passive” after annexation, undermining Ukraine’s status as a European energy hub.
UN Watchdog Sends Urgent Warning: “One Day Our Luck Will Run Out”
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Russia has said it is trying to connect Zaporizhia to its power grid. But Ukrainian officials reportedly doubt that such a connection could even be possible, as it would require a high-voltage power line from the plant to Russia.
Rafael Grossi, director general of the UN nuclear watchdog agency, said he was “astonished at the satisfaction” of the UN as Zaporizhia was forced to operate in emergency mode for the sixth time.
“What are we doing to stop this from happening?” he told the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency in an urgent update. “Each time we are rolling a dice. And if we allow this to continue time after time our luck will one day run out.”
Grossi has long said that the security of Ukraine’s nuclear sites should be the IAEA’s “top priority”. The agency has sent teams to Ukraine to actively monitor Zaporizhzhya and last month released a 52-page report outlining possible security measures.
The top recommendation is the creation of a safe zone around Zaporizhzhya, an idea Kremlin leaders agreed to discuss with the IAEA last month.
Worst case: could Zaporizhzhya be the next Chernobyl?
If all attempts at negotiation fail, a major disaster will occur in Zaporizhia, but probably not as damaging as the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl or the 2011 catastrophe at Fukushima.
Steven Nesbitt, a nuclear engineer and member of the American Nuclear Society’s Rapid Response Task Force, told NPR there are two main reasons for this.
First, some of Zaporizhzhya’s reactors have been shut down for a while, helping to cool the fuel.
Second, Zaporizhzhya’s reactors are more modern in design, surrounded by three- to four-foot walls of reinforced concrete that can help contain radioactive material.
But, apparently, Nesbitt and other nuclear experts say it’s not worth testing those theories.
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