15 Reactors in Ukraine War Zone

February 25, 2022

Protective shell over ruined Chernobyl reactor.

I’m sure it’s fine.


Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is unfolding in a nation with 15 atomic reactors operating near full capacity, exposing Europe’s second-biggest nuclear fleet to potential safety risks.

Monitors at the International Atomic Energy Agency said late Thursday in an email that they’re gravely concerned by the situation and remain in contact with Ukrainian nuclear-safety regulators. Reactors require steady supplies of electricity and water, both of which could be put at risk by military action.

Russian forces have already taken control of the defunct Chernobyl nuclear power plant, and the Defense Ministry in Moscow said it had reached an agreement with guards at the site to jointly ensure safety, according to an Interfax report Friday. It added that background radiation levels were within normal ranges.

The IAEA said there had been no damage to the structures at Chernobyl, which contain the residual radiation left over from the 1986 meltdown. The agency said it’s now focused on ensuring the safety and security of Ukraine’s operating plants. 

“It is of vital importance that the safe and secure operations of the nuclear facilities in that zone should not be affected or disrupted in any way,” IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said. “The IAEA is closely monitoring developments in Ukraine with a special focus on the safety and security of its nuclear power plants.”

Ukraine is Europe’s second-biggest generator of nuclear power after France. Energoatom, the utility which runs its reactors, said in a statement that plant operations were stable even as Russia’s military incursion unfolded.

“Ukraine is at war, people are dying, defenders are heroically repelling enemy attacks,” Energoatom said Friday on its website. “Our common goal is to ensure a reliable electricity supply, despite these difficult circumstances.”

While nuclear facilities have been attacked before — mostly notably an unfinished Iraqi reactor in 1981, as well as Iranian enrichment plants in recent years — it’s the first time that a large-scale war has been waged around a fleet of operating plants. 

“For Ukrainian nuclear power plant staff, merely traveling to work may be a dangerous act — making it potentially challenging to ensure the reactor can be operated safely,” nuclear analyst James Acton said in a note. “In the event of an accident, backup personnel, such as firefighters, may not be able to reach the plant — not least because they could be involved in civilian relief efforts.”

All of Ukraine’s reactors were designed and made by Russian manufacturers. Its oldest units at the Rivne Nuclear Power Plant, northwest of the capital Kyiv, operate reactors that have caused serious safety concerns among European regulators. 

New York Times:

“The only real issue is if a nearby target got hit and caused some collateral damage,” said Edwin Lyman, a reactor expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a private group in Cambridge, Mass. “I don’t see this as an imminent radiological threat. I don’t think Russia would deliberately target a plant.”

In 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant suffered a meltdownthat sent radioactive clouds over parts of Europe and locally left a wasteland of contaminated soil. All four Chernobyl reactors are still shut down, and the plant’s work force closely monitors the safety of Chernobyl’s Unit 4 reactor, which in 1986 exploded and caught fire. An exclusion zone for hundreds of square miles surrounds the abandoned plant to limit public access and inhabitation.

The sprawling plant — some 10 miles from Belarus, a Russian ally — is on one of Russia’s main invasion routes. Western experts said it was in Moscow’s interest to keep Ukraine’s reactors and electrical system running smoothly if its aim was regime change rather than national ruin.

“There’s some risk of a direct hit,” said R. Scott Kemp, a professor of nuclear science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “But I imagine they’ll do everything possible to avoid that because they don’t want to deal with the fallout.”

The bigger threat, Dr. Kemp said, is the degradation of Ukraine’s power grid, which could throw nuclear power plants offline and result in cascading blackouts.

The Ukrainian government said on Thursday on its official website that the Russian invasion and its military takeover of Chernobyl “may cause another ecological disaster.” If the war continues, the government added, a disaster like Chernobyl “can happen again in 2022.”

But nuclear experts rang no strident alarms. Rafael Mariano Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, based in Vienna, said in a statement on Thursday that its Ukrainian counterpart reported that the nation’s 15 nuclear power plants were operating safely. As for the Chernobyl site, he added, the Ukrainian body reported “no casualties nor destruction.”

On Friday, the agency noted reports of “higher radiation measurements at the Chernobyl site” and quoted Ukraine’s nuclear body as saying that the readings may have resulted from heavy military vehicles stirring up soil that the 1986 accident had poisoned.

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