Take a Deep Breath

Rani Franovich rebuts NPR coverage of Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant firefight

On March 11th, Geoff Brumfiel, et. al., from National Public Radio (NPR) station WAMU 88.5 (also referred to as American University Radio) reported the March 3rd conflict at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant (NPP) “was far more dangerous than initial assessments suggested.” NPR offered sensational commentary under a flashy headline: “Video analysis reveals Russian attack on Ukrainian nuclear plant veered near disaster.” As a former inspector with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and member of its Fukushima response team in 2011, I am deeply dismayed to see newscasters, journalists, and various commentators continue disseminating lurid misinformation. Especially at a time when nuclear energy is gaining urgent, widespread support as a safe, reliable alternative to fossil sources (especially oil from hostile regimes like Putin’s Russia), such commentary undermines progress in mitigating climate change and securing US energy independence.

Mr. Brumfiel and his colleagues further reported:

A thorough review of a four-hour, 21-minute security camera video of the attack reveals that Russian forces repeatedly fired heavy weapons in the direction of the plant's massive reactor buildings, which housed dangerous nuclear fuel. Photos show that an administrative building directly in front of the reactor complex was shredded by Russian fire. And a video from inside the plant shows damage and a possible Russian shell that landed less than 250 feet from the Unit 2 reactor building.

None of this reporting was new. Once the shelling ceased and personnel at the Zaporizhzhia NPP could safely venture out to assess the damage, they made the same discoveries and confirmed fire damage to a training building. The administrative and training buildings are not safety structures; nor do they house safety equipment. The truth is that the shelling was not worse than initially reported.

Security footage confirmed reports by Ukraine's nuclear regulator, the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine (SNRIU), of damage at three other locations at the Zaporizhzhia NPP: the Unit 1 reactor compartment auxiliary buildings, the transformer for reactor Unit 6, and the spent fuel pad used to store sealed canisters of used nuclear fuel. These reports indicated that no safety functions were affected. Plant radiation levels remained normal, further confirming that (1) reactors were safe and (2) integrity of the used fuel storage canisters was maintained during the shelling.

Security video footage of the March 3rd conflict showed ordnance striking a high-voltage line outside the plant. According to a March 9th update from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), two of four offsite transmission lines were damaged, leaving “two power lines, plus the one on standby, available to the plant.” Only one power line is relied upon to supply off-site power to essential safety equipment. The plant operator, Energoatom, confirmed shelling damage to an administrative building. Again, no damage to any of the reactors or essential safety equipment was reported.

The NPR station further asserted:

The evidence stands in stark contrast to early comments by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which while acknowledging the seriousness of the assault, emphasized that the action took place away from the reactors. In a news conference immediately after the attack, IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi made reference to only a single projectile hitting a training building adjacent to the reactor complex.

It is not clear why NPR would insinuate IAEA Director General Grossi made false representations of the best available information at the time he was interviewed on March 4th – shortly after the shelling had ceased. Director General Grossi’s statements then, that “All the safety systems of the six reactors at the plant were not affected at all,” were, in fact, confirmed by a more detailed assessment by Zaporizhzhia NPP personnel.

A review of low-resolution, night-time video and photographs is hardly dispositive of the nature and extent of damage. After the shelling, Zaporizhzhia NPP workers conducted plant walkdowns and detailed visual inspections of the site structures, systems, and components to assess impacts to safety. These experienced, knowledgeable plant workers were in the best possible position to reliably account for any damage, and they reported no effects to safety systems.

The punchline of the NPR report was particularly provocative. While any nuclear safety expert – or an average layperson – would agree that “it's completely insane to subject a nuclear plant to this kind of an assault,” the potential for core damage within a couple of hours was highly unlikely considering no safety systems were affected by the shelling. Speculation that this remote possibility could lead to “a situation that is potentially irreversible… [a]nd then you have Fukushima” was unsupported by actual conditions at the Zaporizhzhia NPP.

A meltdown à la Fukushima Daiichi at the Zaporizhzhia NPP warrants some unpacking. As a preliminary matter, the March 11, 2011, Tōhoku earthquake off the coast of Japan triggered a massive tsunami that struck two nuclear power plants (sister plants Daiichi and Daini) in Fukushima Prefecture, Japan. Three reactor units at Fukushima Daiichi were operating at the time of the earthquake and automatically shut down as designed. However, the decay heat of these reactors was very high. The tsunami inundated and disabled offsite and onsite electrical distribution systems that powered cooling systems for the reactors and spent fuel pools, leading to core melt of the three “hot” reactors that had been operating.

Unlike the flooded Fukushima Daiichi plant, offsite power remained available to the Zaporizhzhia NPP in Ukraine. Additionally, emergency diesel generators at the Zaporizhzhia NPP were not affected by the shelling and would have continued to power cooling systems for the reactor and spent fuel pools for at least seven days – more than enough time to achieve cold shutdown for the single reactor unit that was operating at reduced (approximately 60%) power at the time of the shelling. All other reactor units were already shut down or defueled for maintenance.

Once in cold shutdown and fully covered with cooling water, a reactor core is unlikely to overheat. Should cooling be lost, operators would implement measures to restore it. If such efforts were unsuccessful, and conditions worsened from overheating to actual fuel melt, radioactive material and gas would have been retained in the robust containment structure surrounding each reactor at the Zaporizhzhia NPP. In fuel melt scenarios, hydrogen is produced. If it accumulates in sufficient concentrations, it can detonate. Explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi units were caused by hydrogen detonations in the reactor buildings. Unlike the Fukushima Daiichi reactor buildings, the Zaporizhzhia NPP features large-volume, steel-reinforced concrete containment structures designed to (1) prevent radioactive releases to the environment and (2) remove hydrogen from containment through passive safety features. Hence, a comparison of the Zaporizhzhia NPP to Fukushima Daiichi is as flawed as it is gratuitous, calculated to instill fear and panic.

While any attack on a nuclear power plant incurs risk, accurately reporting that risk is essential to public understanding and informed views on the very low risks and numerous benefits of nuclear energy. Nuclear cataclysm is a remote concern in Ukraine. Rather, the physical safety and mental wellbeing of women and men who continue to work at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, without relief and under the orders of a Russian commander, is a far more relevant humanitarian concern. Prolonged fatigue and unimaginable psychological stress increase the potential for human error even in carrying out routine plant operations and maintenance activities. Worker exhaustion and Russian obstruction to delivery of spare parts and medicine to the Zaporizhzhya NPP present secondary nuclear safety concerns for now.

A week earlier, on March 3rd, similarly shrill commentary accompanied news reports around the world of shelling by Russian military forces at the Zaporizhzhia NPP. Purported “experts” on CNN harkened back to Chernobyl and Fukushima – the most significant watershed events in the history of nuclear power generation. Most CNN commentators and invited guests offered little to no grasp of the situation on the ground at the Zaporizhzhia NPP and fanned hysteria with baseless allegories to nuclear accidents, predicting an atomic catastrophe the likes of which we have never seen. Finally, after much wringing of hands over grim prognostications, a calm voice entered the fray. Dr. Edwin Lyman, Director of Nuclear Power Safety, Union of Concerned Scientists, offered the most lucid commentary: loss of electrical power to safety systems that cool the reactor cores and spent fuels is of primary concern. Since there were no reports of power outages, Dr. Lyman's dispassionate, rational account deflated the hot air in doomsday scenarios, allowing others to take a deep breath (or, in my case, a sigh of relief that CNN finally found a more informed commentator, albeit one who was quoted the following week in the alarmist NPR report).

Regrettably, the absence of consequential damage to the Zaporizhzhia NPP’s safety systems has not precluded melodramatic updates from the SNRIU either:

Currently, the cool down of nuclear fuel at Zaporizhzhia NPP power units is ensured by the design systems of power units in accordance with the requirements of the process procedures for safe operation. The loss of the possibility to cool down nuclear fuel will lead to significant radioactive releases into the environment. As a result, such an event may exceed all previous accidents at nuclear power plants, including the Chornobyl (sic) accident and the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

One can appreciate the motivations behind such rhetoric as the Ukrainian government implores the West to engage. Grave concern for the courageous Ukrainian plant workers is justified as they continue to exhibit deep dedication to nuclear safety. Their heroic efforts to safely operate the Zaporizhzhia facility under unfathomable duress and control of the adversary are worthy of commendation. Despite the best efforts of any NPP worker, such hostile working conditions certainly have potential to impact human performance in maintaining cooling of the reactors and spent fuel pools. Even so, invoking the specter of past nuclear disasters is neither informative nor responsible.

In summary, a comparison of the shelling at Zaporizhzhia to the tsunami and accident at Fukushima Daiichi – or to the Chernobyl accident, which involved design flaws and inadequately trained operators – is uninformed and reckless. I would have expected less jaundice-hued hype and drama from NPR, one of my go-to sources for reliable news coverage. Government officials and the media alike should take a deep breath before issuing inflammatory reports of a looming nuclear disaster in Ukraine.