Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant: The ‘Sum Of All Fears’ – OpEd


By Leonam dos Santos Guimarães*

Drone attacks on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, whether carried out by Ukraine or Russia, introduce a new and dangerous dimension to the conflict between the two largest former Soviet Socialist Republics, with possible far-reaching ramifications, not just for the region immediately surrounding the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, but also for all European Union countries and, more broadly, for the international community.

The biggest concern is the potential risk of a severe nuclear accident, which could have dire effects not only on Ukraine and Russia, but also on neighboring countries. The release of radioactive material knows no borders, and a contaminated cloud could spread across multiple nations depending on weather conditions, putting public health and the environment at risk on a significant scale.

The consequences of attacks on nuclear facilities are potentially severe and vast. A nuclear accident can result in the contamination of large areas, affecting land, water and wildlife, with lasting consequences for the environment and human health. It could also force mass evacuations of affected areas, creating humanitarian and refugee crises. In addition to the direct costs of cleanup and containment, a nuclear disaster can have a substantial economic impact on agriculture, land use, and public health.

Containing a leak at a nuclear power plant is a highly complex and challenging operation, depending on several factors. These include the type of damage to the reactor or other critical parts of the facility, as well as the amount and type of radioactive material released.

A plant’s ability to contain a leak depends on its design, existing safety systems, and how well those systems can handle the specific type of accident. The effectiveness of the immediate response, including confining the area, evacuating personnel, and implementing decontamination measures, is crucial to minimizing the impacts of a spill. The availability of technical, human, and financial resources to manage the situation is essential. This also includes international support, as seen after the Chernobyl accident and the Fukushima disaster.

Several factors

The scope of a nuclear accident in Europe will depend on several factors, including the direction and speed of the wind, which determine the dispersion of radioactive particles in the atmosphere, the amount of material released, which the greater the amount, the larger the area potentially affected, and the effectiveness of containment and decontamination measures, which can significantly limit the scope of contamination.

In any case, it is important to highlight that the severity of a severe accident at the Zaporizhzhia Power Plant would most likely have significantly smaller consequences than the Chernobyl accident due to the technical characteristics of the different types of reactors involved: Pressurized Water Reactors PWR, moderated and air-cooled liquid light water in Zaporizhzhia and Reaktor Bolshoy Moshchnosty Kanalnyy RBMK, moderated to graphite and cooled to boiling light water in Chernobyl.

The great severity of the Chernobyl accident was caused, fundamentally, by the fire of hundreds of tons of graphite. The energy released by this immense “bonfire” in turn launched hundreds of tons of radioactive material at high altitudes, which were dispersed by the effect of the direction and intensity of the winds at great distances from the plant.

In a PWR reactor, no equivalent amounts of energy can be released under accidental conditions, which limits the quantity, height, and range of nuclear materials released into the atmosphere even in the most severe accidental conditions.

It is important to note that Europe has an early warning system for nuclear emergencies, ECURIE. This system ensures that member countries are quickly informed about nuclear accidents that may affect them, allowing for a coordinated and effective response.

The possibility that such attacks could trigger a third world war is a serious and plausible concern. An intricate web of military alliances, geopolitical interests and containment strategies influences the dynamics of the current conflict. Attacks against nuclear facilities are perceived as significant escalations of conflict. If considered acts of war, they may justify severe retaliation. The nature and extent of such retaliations would depend on many factors, including the international perception of the incident and the strategic decisions of major world powers.

The risk of a third world war

The involvement of NATO members providing support to Ukraine further complicates the situation. While NATO has been careful in its approach to avoid direct escalation with Russia, the line between support and direct involvement is fine and delicate. Preventing an escalation into a broader conflict will likely depend on intense diplomatic efforts and attempts at de-escalation by all parties involved.

While the risk of a third world war arising from such attacks cannot be completely ruled out, many countries and international organizations are deeply committed to avoiding such a scenario. The situation requires constant vigilance, careful diplomacy and, possibly, a reassessment of security protocols around nuclear facilities in conflict zones.

In the past, the safety of nuclear power plants amid war was a purely theoretical part of their safety analysis reports. Generally, it was considered in terms of a single occurrence, such as a plane crashing into the dome of a containment structure or damaging one of the important elements of a power plant’s operation following a terrorist attack. During the design and construction of most currently operating reactors, a terrorist attack seemed very unlikely. It was enough to take into account the complete failure of any elements, regardless of the cause. The project ensured the safety of a station after such initial events.

In 2011, the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, assessed as having negligible probability, certainly changed perceptions of safety. The probability of being affected by war changed in a similar way. The assumption that a country with nuclear energy is developed enough not to be drawn into a military conflict on its territory influences the assessment that such a possibility is low. However, events can contradict our optimistic predictions with surprising frequency. In Ukraine, recent events have increased the likelihood of such events occurring.

The relationship between nuclear energy and war began in the 1950s. Since then, conflicts have occurred in at least eight countries with nuclear plants or programs, such as Yugoslavia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, India, Pakistan, Armenia, and, finally, Ukraine. We will examine these in a future article.

*The writer is a nuclear and naval engineer (PhD) member of the Brazilian National Academy of Engineering. CEO of Eletronuclear S.A. Coordinator, Brazilian Navy Nuclear Propulsion Program. 


IDN-InDepthNews offers news analyses and viewpoints on topics that impact the world and its peoples. IDN-InDepthNews serves as the flagship of the International Press Syndicate Group

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