The risks of disconnection of Zaporizhzhia from the Ukrainian network

Zaporizhzhia, Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, remained disconnected from the Ukrainian power grid on Friday morning, Ukrainian nuclear operator Energoatom said.

A day after the Zaporizhzhia power station in southern Ukraine was shut down in a historic first, allegedly caused by nearby fires, Energoatom released a statement saying its six reactors were still disconnected from the power grid Ukrainian at 9 a.m. local time.

Russia, meanwhile, pushed back, saying the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant was operating normally, and there had been no complete shutdown.

The nuclear power plant has been under Russian control since March 1, just days after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion began. It was one of the first sites to be seized by Russian forces, but is still operated by Ukrainian personnel.

There have been widespread concerns about a potential nuclear disaster as the plant, which is located near the frontline in the town of Enerhodar, has remained the target of bombardment in recent weeks. Ukraine and Russia have accused each other of bombing the plant.

Experts have also raised concerns about the consequences of disconnecting the plant from the Ukrainian grid, while Washington has warned against diverting electricity from the site to occupied areas.

A Russian serviceman patrols the territory of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Energodar on May 1, 2022. The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southeastern Ukraine is the largest nuclear power plant in Europe and one of 10 largest in the world.
ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/Getty Images

Before the war, the nuclear plant supplied more than a fifth of Ukraine’s electricity needs, and its loss would mean additional pressure as the country prepares for what President Volodymyr Zelensky has warned could be the toughest winter in the country’s history due to high fuel costs and “Russian aggression”.

The director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Mariano Grossi, pointed out on Thursday that there is a new incident at or near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant almost every day. “We cannot afford to waste any more time,” he said in a statement.

On Thursday, a bipartisan group of former US nuclear safety officials sent a letter to US President Joe Biden urging him to push for an IAEA inspection of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.

On the same day, the White House also called on Russia to agree to a demilitarized zone around the nuclear power plant.

“Arming the Winter”

John Erath, senior policy director at the US-based Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, said Newsweek that the disconnection of the Zaporizhzhia plane from the Ukrainian electricity network could have disastrous consequences for the country.

“It would deprive Ukraine of up to 20% of its electricity. Winter is coming. Thousands of civilians could be in danger of starving to death or freezing. Unable to achieve its battlefield objectives, the Russia could militarize winter,” Erath said.

On Thursday, Washington accused Moscow of trying to “create energy crises in Europe”.

“No country should turn a nuclear power plant into an active war zone, and we oppose all Russian efforts to militarize or divert power from the plant,” State Department spokesman Vedant Patel told reporters. journalists. “To be very clear, the [plant] and the electricity it produces rightfully belongs to Ukraine, and any attempt to disconnect the plant from the Ukrainian power grid and redirect it to occupied areas is unacceptable.”

cooling failure

Disconnecting the nuclear power plant from the Ukrainian grid poses a potential risk because in the event of a failure of the emergency power systems, the fuel in the reactor core could melt.

Petro Kotin, head of Energoatom, Ukraine’s atomic energy company, said The Guardian that completely disconnecting the plant would increase the risk of a catastrophic failure as it would remain dependent on a single source of electricity to cool its active reactor.

“You can’t just switch from one system to another immediately, you have to…close everything on one side and then you start switching to another side,” Kotin said.

If an electrical link fails, backup diesel generators kick in, providing electricity as long as there is fuel. Kotin said the reactors would reach a dangerous temperature after just 90 minutes.

“During this disconnection, the plant will not be connected to any power supply and that is the reason for the danger,” Kotin said. “If you don’t provide cooling…for an hour and a half, you’ll have already melted.”

Ed Lyman, director of nuclear energy safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the current situation is “fragile” and that without knowing the real situation at the plant: “I cannot have any confidence in the reliability or duration of backup power supplies.”

Newsweek has contacted Energoatom and Russian authorities for comment.