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Explained: Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, Europe’s largest, seized by Russia

Explained: Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, Europe’s largest, seized by Russia

Explained: Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, Europe’s largest, seized by Russia
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By CNBCTV18.com Mar 4, 2022 5:54:01 PM IST (Published)

The Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, which is among the world's 10 largest, had caught fire after shelling from Russian forces. The fire was later put out, but the incident sparked concerns about radiation leak. 'Essential' equipment were reportedly safe.

Europe’s biggest nuclear power plant was the site of a fierce battle as Russian forces continued to march into Ukraine. The Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in the city of Enerhodar has now been seized by the Russian forces.

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“The territory of the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant is occupied by the armed forces of the Russian Federation," the Ukrainian nuclear inspectorate was quoted as saying by news agency AFP.

The power plant had caught fire after shelling from Russian forces. The fire was later put out, but the incident sparked concerns about radiation leak.

Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant

The Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant is one of the world’s 10 largest nuclear power plants where energy from radioactive fuel, uranium-235, is used to heat water that is then turned into steam which is used by turbines to generate power.

The plant contains six pressurised light-water nuclear reactors (PWR) with each outputting 950 MW, for a total output of 5,700 MW. The plant alone provides more than half of Ukraine’s nuclear power and contributes nearly 25 percent to Ukraine’s overall power generation.

Located on the banks of the Dnieper river, it is closer to the breakaway regions of Luhansk Donetsk, and the annexed Crimean peninsula than the capital of Kyiv. It is also about 525 km south of Chernobyl, the site of the worst nuclear disaster in the world, which has also been captured by Russian forces.

The clashes

On March 4, a large number of tanks and infantry broke away from the Russian 22nd Army, which was approaching Enerhodar from the south. This split-off group quickly made a thrust towards the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, where it engaged in a fierce firefight with the Ukrainian armed forces. The power plant seems to be a strategic point for the Russian advance as it was reportedly shelled to soften it up for the ground assault.

Closed-circuit security footage from the plant was soon circulating on Twitter. The footage showed the incoming fire from a column of vehicles setting buildings on fire.

“As a result of continuous enemy shelling of buildings and units of the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant is on fire,” said Enerhodar Mayor, Dmytro Orlov, reported Al Jazeera.

Reports suggested that the fire broke out in a museum on the plant premises and not one of the nuclear reactor buildings themselves. Later statements from Ukrainian authorities stated that a training building and a laboratory had been set aflame.

While firefighters at first were unable to access the premises and put out the fire, the Ukrainian Emergency Services finally managed to control the flames in the early hours.

“As of 05:20 at the Zaporizhzhia NPP in Energodar, State Emergency Service units went to put out the fire in the training building,” the state emergency services wrote on Facebook. The post added that 40 firefighters and 10 vehicles were involved in dousing the flames in the power plant.

The fires were completely doused in an hour.

“At 06:20 (04:20 UTC) the fire in the training building of Zaporizhzhia NPP in Energodar was extinguished. There are no victims,” the emergency services said in a new statement on Facebook.

Energoatom, the Ukrainian nuclear company responsible for the plants, told the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA), the international nuclear watchdog, that the “essential” equipment was safe.

The IAEA also said that the radiation level around the plant remained at stable levels. The website monitoring the radiation level around the plant was unavailable at the time of writing.

US Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm tweeted, “The plant’s reactors are protected by robust containment structures and reactors are being safely shut down.”

The risk

It is unlikely that the nuclear plant will blow up resulting in a massive nuclear disaster, but if any highly ballistic ammunition were to strike the nuclear fuel waste containment where spent fuel rods are stored, a nuclear catastrophe much worse than Chernobyl is a possibility.

The vaporised highly radioactive pollutants will spread through Ukraine, Russia and over most of Europe.

The highly reckless attack was criticised by world leaders.

“China is concerned about the safety, security and safeguards of nuclear facilities in Ukraine,” said Wang Qun, China’s envoy to the IAEA.

"No country other than Russia has ever fired on nuclear power units," said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in a video message released by his office. "This is the first time in our history. In the history of mankind. The terrorist state now resorted to nuclear terror."

“The prime minister (Boris Johnson) said the reckless actions of president Putin could now directly threaten the safety of all of Europe. He said the UK would do everything it could to ensure the situation did not deteriorate further,” said a Downing Street spokesperson.

What is the situation now?

The nuclear power plant has now fallen into the hands of Russian forces. The city of Enerhodar was also reported to have fallen into the hands of the invading forces, though reports appeared to be of a conflicting nature.

Mayor Orlov was reportedly a possible hostage, while at the time of writing a loud explosion was once again heard in the area, thought to be from the nuclear power plant.

Ukrainian authorities had also reportedly lost contact with the operators in the plant.

"The invaders entered the territory of the nuclear power plant, took control of personnel and management. Currently, there is no connection and the station management works at gunpoint," Petro Kotin, President of Energoatom, National Nuclear Energy Generating Company of Ukraine, said during the round-the-clock news marathon of leading Ukrainian TV channels, reported Ukrinform.

Amid reportage of Russia engaging in war crimes like the use of restricted weapons such as thermobaric bombs, cluster bombs and ballistic missiles to target civilian areas, what exactly Russia hopes to achieve by attacking the power plant is unclear.

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