Ukraine’s nuclear time bomb

Photo illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Reuters

Photo illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Reuters

Of all the horrors of Putin’s war on Ukraine, the most disastrous may be his constant threat to Europe’s largest nuclear power plant.

The Zaporizhzhia power plant is a nuclear time bomb. By accident, attack or sabotage, this could become the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

Concerns are growing as Ukraine prepares to launch its counter-offensive, which will likely involve intense fighting around the nuclear site.

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Energoatom, the Ukrainian nuclear company, warned that the plant was “on the verge of a nuclear and radiological accident”. The IAEA said the facility was “extremely vulnerable”. Workers at the facility told Britain’s Sky News they fear the fighting could trigger the release of radioactive gases which “could wreak havoc across much of Europe, Russia and the Mediterranean”.

The risk is not that of a nuclear explosion like Hiroshima or Nagasaki. The danger comes from the plant’s thousands of fuel rods that could melt, releasing hydrogen gas which then explodes, spewing radioactive particles in plumes that could travel hundreds or even thousands of miles.

Think “nuclear Hindenburg”.

In addition to the hundreds of tons of fuel in the site’s six nuclear reactors, there are more than 3,300 spent fuel assemblies in dry storage outside the reactors and nearly 2,000 in pools. This represents a total of 2,200 tonnes of nuclear material. Much of this fuel is hot. It must be constantly cooled. If the electricity goes out, the pumps can’t circulate the water, the fuel rods will heat up and explode.

So far, power to the plant has been cut seven times since Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, most recently on May 6. Back-up generators were turned on to keep water flowing until power could be restored. But these generators can only work for a few days, if they are in good condition.

For months I and other experts have warned that Zaporizhzhia is hanging by a thread. Here is how this wire could be cut:

1. Fighting around the factory cuts the power lines or cuts off the power supply.

This is the most likely scenario, especially since the next Ukrainian offensive will likely attempt to cross the Dnipro and drive Russian occupation forces out of the Zaporizhzhia region. A worker told Sky News the backup generators were not properly maintained and he feared they could not keep the power going.

2. Staff errors could trigger a disaster, as happened at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.

Since Russia occupied the factory in March 2022, the staff has shrunk from 11,000 workers to around 3,500. Worse, “the quality of workers is lower because qualified personnel have left,” said one worker. There is now a “shortage of repair workers who can actually do the maintenance and fix the problems”.

3. A deliberate Russian attack could empty the pools or destroy the concrete domes around the reactors.

A Ukrainian attack is unlikely – which is why Russia has now stockpiled dozens of military vehicles and munitions at the factory – but this is war and a stray missile or shell could hit a critical node.

4. It is also possible that Russia will sabotage the plant.

The Russian military might intentionally destroy the factory in order to delay or defeat the Ukrainian advance. According to unconfirmed reports, Russia placed explosives around the main nuclear components of the site. Russia began mass evacuations around the plant.

“We are lucky that a nuclear accident has not yet occurred,” IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi told the United Nations Security Council on May 30. “We are rolling the dice and if this continues, one day our luck will change.”

What happens to Russia after its defeat?

Grossi renewed his call for the immediate demilitarization of the plant and surrounding area. Russia refused, as it has done since the beginning of its occupation.

There are few signs that Putin will change his mind. He wants to keep a plant that once supplied 20% of Ukraine’s energy as a nuclear ace in whatever hole he could play. He is an integral part of his nuclear chicken game.

But there is no winning hand here. It’s not just Ukrainian drones that can reach Moscow. Winds could carry radioactive plumes from the smoldering Zaporizhzhia fires deep into Russia. A move aimed at harming Ukrainians could instead sow further panic among Russians supporting Putin’s war.

At this point, we should say that the odds of such a disaster are better than equal. The ticking nuclear bomb ticks.

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