04 March 2022
Russian forces captured Europe's largest nuclear power center in southern Ukraine early Friday. The intense gun battle led to a fire that raised concerns about the safety of nuclear reactors at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station.
After speaking with Ukrainian officials, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Rafael Mariano Grossi said a Russian "projectile" hit a training center during the battle causing a fire. And Reuters news agency also confirmed a video showing one building at the nuclear center burning after being hit by several shells.
Russian defense officials, however, blamed "Ukrainian saboteurs" for the attack without providing any evidence. Ukrainian officials said the fire was put out and the safety of the center was not affected although there was damage to the area.
Grossi said the reactors had suffered no damage but only one of the six reactors was working. He added that the monitoring system for radiation was working normally and that no release of radioactive material had been found. And Ukrainian workers were continuing to operate the plant while Russian forces controlled the area.
Zaporizhzhia nuclear center
The Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station is designed differently from the Chernobyl plant, which suffered the world's most severe nuclear disaster in 1986. The area is closed off to the public and radiation levels there are still high. Russian forces seized Chernobyl on the first day of their invasion.
Although there have been no reports of radiation leaks at Zaporizhzhia, the IAEA has warned that fighting in and around the area presents extreme risks.
One big concern is that fighting could interrupt the power supply to the nuclear plant. Plant workers would then have to use diesel fuel generators for electricity, which are less dependable. A failure of the cooling systems could lead to a meltdown of the reactor. That is what happened at Japan's Fukushima nuclear plants after the earthquake and tsunami of 2011 damaged cooling systems there.
Ukraine's president Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the threat to Europe was extremely big and urgent action was necessary.
"If there is an explosion, that's the end for everyone. The end for Europe," he said in an emotional speech.
Jon Wolfsthal was a security advisor to former U.S. President Barack Obama. He said the reactors have thick containment domes that can protect them from fire and even shelling. However, he told the Associated Press "We don't want our nuclear power plants to come under assault, to be on fire."
Nuclear safety in a conflict
Ukraine is highly dependent on nuclear energy. It has 15 reactors at four stations that provide about half the country's electricity. Now, both the Chernobyl area and the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station are surrounded by Russian troops.
Park Jong-woon is an engineering professor at Dongguk University in South Korea. He told Reuters there was no immediate threat presented by the seizure of the plant. But he added that Russia might block the public from studying radiation information from the plant.
"They can make people wonder...and spread fear," he said. Park helped build nuclear reactors for state-run power operators in South Korea.
Earlier this week, Ukrainian officials appealed to the IAEA that the Russian military was forcing workers at Chernobyl to work long hours and they were extremely tired.
IAEA chief Grossi then appealed to Russia to let the Chernobyl workers "do their job safely and effectively."
James Acton is with the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He said the simple way to keep nuclear centers safe is to immediately end any military operation around them.
Mitsuru Fukuda is a professor at Nihon University in Tokyo. He said the attack at Zaporizhzhia raises questions for all countries.
He said many people did not expect the incident at the nuclear reactor.
"Now that (Russian President Vladimir) Putin has done it, not only Ukraine but the international community, including Japan, should reevaluate the risk of having nuclear plants as potential wartime targets," he said.
I'm Mario Ritter, Jr.
David Rising reported this story for the Associated Press. Mario Ritter Jr. adapted it for VOA Learning English with materials from VOA News and Reuters.
Words in This Story
projectile –n. something (such as a bullet or rocket) that is shot from a weapon
saboteur –n. a person who destroys or damages something deliberately : a person who performs sabotage
assault –n. a military attack
reevaluate –v. to judge the value or condition of (someone or something) again
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