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How dangerous is the situation at the Ukrainian nuclear power plant in Zaporozhye?

The United Nations has demanded that international inspectors have access to Ukraine’s nuclear power plant in Zaporozhye after it was bombed this weekend. How dangerous is the situation? What can happen from now on?

The Zaporizhia nuclear power plant, built during the Soviet period, is the largest in Europe. Its six pressurized water reactors (two of which are currently operational) are critical to Kiev’s ability to generate power for four million homes.

In Enerhodar, on the south bank of the Dnieper River and southwest of the city of Zaporizhia, the plant occupies a key strategic position for the invading Russian and Ukrainian forces, who have disputed control of it since the start of the war.

Russia, which controls the plant, used the sprawling site as a “protected” firing point from which to fire at Ukrainian positions. They believe that the presence of water-cooled reactors, as well as spent fuel storage facilities, prevents Ukraine from retaliating because of the risk of a nuclear accident.

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken accused the Russians of using the plant as a nuclear shield. Of course, the Ukrainians cannot return fire, lest there be a terrible accident at the nuclear plant. The move allowed Russia to land in areas such as the city of Nikopol across the river, which has come under heavy shelling in recent weeks.

There are two reasons behind the growing concern about the plant, which remains under Russian control and remains staffed by Ukrainian personnel. Because of the disruption caused by the conflict, international nuclear safety authorities are concerned about the lack of spare parts, routine maintenance of the reactors and lack of contact with personnel.

The second problem is the use of Grad missiles around the plant this weekend, which the Russians and Ukrainians blame each other for. According to the Ukrainian nuclear authority Energoatom, the strikes from these missiles were used near a fuel storage facility. Energotom also claimed that Russian troops “targeted the containers” despite the presence of Russian soldiers at the scene.

But it should be noted that Ukrainian authorities sometimes exaggerate the nuclear risks posed by the Chernobyl and Zaporozhye conflicts, so the level of danger from the weekend incident remains unclear.

Ukraine’s aim for the plant to be considered a demilitarized zone is a call for caution, but also a way to deny Russian forces a place from which they can bomb with relative impunity.

Another aspect is the statement by the Ukrainian intelligence services (reported by the country’s media) that Russia has mined the facilities. According to this report, Valery Vasiliev, the Russian major general in charge of the Zaporizhia garrison and the head of defense forces against radiation, chemical and biological agents, said: “The land will be Russian or a burning desert.”

But a major and targeted explosion in Zaporozhye poses a threat to both southern Russia and Ukraine due to nuclear contamination. Hence the importance of distinguishing between “nuclear blackmail” and the real threat, which will also have repercussions in Russia.

Protected by steel, reinforced concrete and fire protection systems, the reactors are designed to withstand large impacts, such as a civilian plane crashing into them (although a large missile attack could be more problematic).

But buildings that house spent fuel do not have the same level of protection. This makes a wartime fuel spill more likely than a nuclear reactor disaster.

Perhaps the most serious problem at the plant is security operations: the deterioration of the system caused by the conflict has been exacerbated by the risk of bombing.

According to the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Mariano Grossi, the current crisis in safety monitoring systems poses a serious threat to public health and the environment inside Ukraine and abroad, a situation that he believes “totally out of control”.

“There are some things that should never happen in any nuclear facility,” he said. Grossi proposed sending a mission to the plant, but Ukraine has so far paradoxically blocked the initiative. The argument that Energotom presented in June was that Any visit would legitimize Russia’s presence on the place. However, Ukraine’s ambassador to the IAEA, Yevheny Tsymbalyuk, this Monday called for a mission to be sent along with experts from the UN and other countries because “their mere presence will already improve the level of safety at the plant.”

Translated by Francisco de Zarate

Source: El Diario

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