The Real Risks at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Plant
What does the Ukraine war’s new phase mean for the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant?
“Any potential damage to Zaporizhzhya is suicide.”
On August 18, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres used these words to describe the risks of ongoing fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces around the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant in southern Ukraine. The comments came during a meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in western Ukraine, which Guterres was visiting during an attempt to spur peace talks.
As Ukraine continues to battle Putin’s unprovoked invasion, the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant has become a metaphor for Russia’s unhinged, self-destructive, desperate continuation of a conflict that Russian leaders and generals had initially expected to win within days or weeks. Their nerves wracked by pinpoint Ukrainian artillery and drone attacks, Russian troops have been forced to retreat from vast swaths of Ukrainian territory in the north, northeast, and south. Russian troops near the power plant in southern Ukraine have increasingly used the facility itself as a shield to protect themselves from enemy fire.
For the latest updates on the status of Ukraine's Nuclear Reactors, check out our Nuclear Energy Team's FAQ.
Under international humanitarian law, nuclear power plants sit in a protected category of large-scale civil infrastructure, alongside dikes and hydroelectric dams. Some countries, including both Russia and Ukraine, maintain a longstanding policy that such protection may become invalidated if hostile forces actively use the facility as a base of operations, or if the facility is actively aiding the enemy army. With increased Russian military activity around the Zaporizhzhya plant, such considerations have become concretely relevant.
But in this charged environment, media coverage has become less of a rational discussion of scientific risks than a focal point for moral symbolism. As of this writing, the war marks its six-month anniversary as Ukraine simultaneously marks its 31st anniversary of independence, with rumors circulating of an impending incident at the plant. Given the intense propaganda value of the current situation, observers and the general public should critically evaluate public statements and verify the details of any alleged events that may occur there over the next few days.
For months now, the situation has remained continually ripe for misinformation and misunderstanding. For one, Russian attacks on the city of Zaporizhzhya dozens of kilometers upstream are frequently mischaracterized on social media as strikes aimed at the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant. The city of Zaporizhzhya remains free Ukrainian territory, whereas Russian invaders have occupied the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant—even as Ukrainian staff have continued their work there—and the nearby city of Enerhodar since the first days of March. When Russian troops first seized the power plant before dawn on March 4th, numerous journalists and commentators mistook a fire at a training facility as a full-blown nuclear disaster, despite the fact that this building sat over half a kilometer away from the nearest reactor containment building.
Since the power plant’s capture, worrying reports have surfaced regarding how occupying Russian troops have interfered with plant operations, preventing power plant workers from changing shifts, detaining plant staff, and even killing local civilians in the nearby town. The Breakthrough Institute’s detailed, up-to-date FAQ on events at the Zaporizhzhya plant documents how the facility faces numerous crises that would be unacceptable during peacetime operations, from fatigued personnel to loss of several power lines that could supply backup electricity to the plant in the event of power loss. At the same time, experts, including representatives from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), have continually reassured the public that to date, no detectable, let alone harmful, release of radioactivity from the power plant has occurred.
So why are international observers once again directing intense attention towards the situation at the Zaporizhzhya plant, with statements like Guterres’ and others warning of imminent disaster?
In the last few weeks, the situation in southern Ukraine has become particularly tense. To the power plant’s southwest, Ukrainian forces have launched a major offensive toward the Russian-occupied city of Kherson. This assault has pushed Russian troops back by around 30 km at some points along the frontline and has threatened to cut off enemy forces thanks to precision strikes that have damaged bridge crossings over the Dnipro River to the Russian rear. At the same time, advanced artillery systems donated to Ukraine by the United States and allied countries have allowed Ukrainian forces to target Russian supply bases and high-value targets with devastating effect. At the local level, Ukrainian drone operators have continually harassed enemy occupiers with small explosives dropped from hovering quadcopters.
Russian forces in southern Ukraine are thus both on the defensive and increasingly paranoid about the threat of air and artillery attack. In recent weeks, video footage recorded inside the nuclear power plant showed that Russian forces have begun parking military vehicles inside buildings within the facility itself. Russian forces in the area also find themselves increasingly under fire from Ukrainian artillery and drone strikes, attacks which Russian spokespeople have blamed for risking damage to the plant. In response, Ukrainian officials and allies have criticized Russian actions for exposing the facility to danger, while raising the alarm over the possibility that Russian forces might stage a false-flag incident at the Zaporizhzhya plant to blame Ukrainian leaders for a nuclear accident.
In this context, the increasing tension over the Zaporizhzhya facility has lent the power plant symbolic significance within the war at large. While threats to the power plant are indeed serious and real, both the combatants and their allies possess numerous incentives to exaggerate the potential danger of damage to the reactor buildings.
On August 23rd, for instance, the UN Security Council met to discuss the ongoing threat to the Zaporizhzhya plant. In a political twist, it was the Russian Federation that demanded the meeting, with the Russian representative attributing all danger of damage to the nuclear power plant to Ukrainian actions. Neutrally-positioned countries such as Gabon and Ghana called simply for a rapid ceasefire to halt hostilities, while the United States and allies such as Norway directly condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and exhorted Russian leaders to withdraw their troops back behind Ukraine’s internationally-recognized borders. Calling for restraint, the Kenyan representative implied, incorrectly, that damage to the nuclear facility could turn it into a nuclear weapon. Meanwhile, Ukrainian workers at the Zaporizhzhya plant took to social media to reproach occupying Russian forces for their recklessness: “Think about the future of our Earth, about the future of our and your children.”
In spite of growing international drama, it is objectively clear that the Zaporizhzhya plant poses little threat to nearby populations, let alone to the world at large. The Zaporizhzhya plant’s thick steel-and-concrete reactor containment structures offer protection that significantly exceeds that of older plants like Chernobyl or Fukushima, and are rated to survive highly destructive events such as a direct jetliner collision. In addition, four of the six reactor units at Zaporizhzhya are in cold shutdown—that is, the reactors are inactive with their coolant systems resting at low temperature and atmospheric pressure. As for onsite spent fuel storage pools, the combination of backup diesel generators, a substantial reservoir of coolant, and robust containment facilities minimize risks.
The greatest concern at the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant is rather the safety and well-being of the brave plant personnel. Russian troops have already committed numerous atrocities against Ukrainian civilians in half a year of warfare. A prolonged situation in which plant workers prioritizing the safety of the plant and local populations must confront hostile soldiers with an uncertain agenda increases the risk of interference and violence.
In light of this, the logical safest path forward for the Zaporizhzhya plant is clear. Inspectors from the IAEA should receive safe passage and full access to the plant. Russian military commanders should go further by declaring the power plant and its vicinity to be a demilitarized zone. The entirety of the ongoing situation could, of course, be rapidly resolved if Moscow leaders were to abandon their bloody, senseless war of aggression against Ukraine.
In the meantime, the general public in Europe and across the world at large should remain skeptical in the face of both political rhetoric and misinformation on social media. Over the past six months, investigation has revealed many breaking news claims regarding the Zaporizhzhya plant to be false or misleading. With any luck, Russian military commanders in southern Ukraine will see reason and allow the local situation to stabilize. Yet should a crisis erupt in the coming days and weeks, observers should wait for reliable information from expert institutions like the IAEA before leaping to unsubstantiated conclusions.
Countries at war understand well that moral victories can matter alongside military victories. Ukrainians, Russians, and their respective allies all possess powerful incentives to overstate the risks and potential consequences of damage to the Zaporizhzhya plant in order to condemn and blame the other side. Such messaging builds upon already significant popular misperceptions regarding nuclear power plants while overshadowing more level-headed evaluations of potential risk.
Objectively, any risks to human health and the environment from the Zaporizhzhya plant remain low. What minor risks do exist are overwhelmingly the fault of Russian military forces and lie wholly within the power of Russian leaders to eliminate.
Update: On Wednesday October 5th, following a sham referendum in which the Russian Federation formally annexed Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia administrative region along with three other regions of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin signed a degree nationalizing the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant as property of the Russian state. The Ukrainian government and Ukraine's state-owned nuclear energy corporation Energoatom are refusing to acknowledge this Russian effort to forcibly transfer ownership and operation of the nuclear power plant, while the International Atomic Energy Agency still seeks to negotiate a safety and security protection zone around the facility to protect it from military operations. It is unlikely that Russia will be able to pursue increased operation of the power plant in the near term. While the situation continues to evolve, the annexation does not likely pose any immediate threat to the plant infrastructure itself. The major concern remains the status, safety, and well-being of the plant's Ukrainian operators.
As of September 14th, a neutral mission of experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency have been working at the site of the Zaporizhzhia plant for two weeks since their arrival on August 31st. All six reactor units at the power plant are now in cold shutdown, while three backup power lines are now able to supply electricity to the facility. The IAEA is now working with Ukrainian and Russian officials to negotiate a protective zone around the nuclear power plant. As such, safety considerations at Zaporizhzhia have improved markedly, running counter to alarmed rumors of pending catastrophe and further emphasizing the importance of level-headed analysis based on reliable, up-to-date information.