The Russian attack on Europe’s largest power plant sparked global panic on Friday as nuclear officials warned it could have caused a devastating radiation leak and left millions of Ukrainians without an energy supply.
In what quickly became the most perilous moment of Moscow’s invasion so far, Russian troops seized control of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in Ukraine’s southeast early Friday.
No radiation was released as a result of the shelling attacks and firefighters were eventually able to extinguish a blaze in one of the plant’s buildings, UN and Ukrainian officials said.
But nuclear experts and officials said Russia’s attack has created an exceedingly risky situation.
“I’m extremely concerned. This is something which is very, very fragile, very unstable as a situation,” UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency chief Raphael Grossi said.
Zaporizhzhia, the largest of Ukraine’s four nuclear power plants, contains six of the country’s 15 nuclear energy reactors. The plants collectively supply about half of Ukraine’s electricity.
The targeted plant accounts for about 20 percent of the average annual electricity production in Ukraine. Together, the reactors can generate a total output of 5,700MW, which is enough energy for about four million homes.
Initially, the attack triggered alarm over fears any of the reactors had been damaged. Any destruction to the reactor or the building housing it could have caused it to overheat and then radiation to leak out.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said such damage could have caused destruction equal to six times what happened at Chernobyl — the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster in 1986.
“If there is an explosion, it is the end of everything. The end of Europe,” Zelensky said.
Radiation levels remained normal at the plant through Friday, Grossi said.
Only one of the plant’s six reactors remained online in the wake of the attack and was operating at about 60 percent of its capacity in order to keep Ukraine’s power grid stable.
Zaporizhzhia workers had started safely shutting the reactors in a bid to protect them as Russia launched its attack, US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said.
Reactors take about 30 hours to safely shut down because they need time to cool, which requires a constant electricity supply. Officials said that any disruption to the plant’s electricity supply during that time could have affected the cooling process — and subsequently led to a radiation leak.
Sheffield University nuclear materials expert Claire Corkhill told the BBC that it may have been Russia’s intention to have the reactors taken offline.
“If you want to target their power supply, you attack a building close to the power plant and force operators to shut it down,” she said.
Corkhill said any loss to the power supply could have resulted in a similar situation to Japan’s Fukushima disaster in 2011 where “a loss of power led to a loss of cooling, which caused a meltdown of three of its nuclear reactors.”
For now, Russian troops are in control of Zaporizhzhia but allowing the plant staff to run it — some at gunpoint.
“For the time being it is purely Ukrainian staff running the operations there,” Grossi said.
Energoatom, the Ukrainian state nuclear plant operator, said this posed a risk in itself because staff had been working at the site for more than 24 hours straight and were “physically and morally exhausted.”
Petro Kotin, the head of Energoatom, also warned that a major threat now was the nuclear material stored in the reactors and on-site cooling ponds.
“Given that such a technically complex facility as a nuclear power plant is seized by nuclear terrorists who do not know how to safely handle nuclear material, the danger threatens not only the entire region, but the world as a whole,” Kotin said.
With Post wires