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The risks of nuclear power in an increasingly destabilised world

The attack on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine will decrease support for the technology.

By Philippa Nuttall

News of a fire on the site of a nuclear power plant in a city under siege is clearly cause for concern. The UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has said that military activity at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, which is the largest in Europe, could “directly threaten the safety of all of Europe”. For the moment, however, experts are continuing to reassure the world that while the situation is serious, there is no immediate reason to panic.

“On 4 March 2022 the military forces of the Russian Federation committed shelling on the Zaporizhzhia NPP site, as a result of which a fire broke out,” confirmed Ukraine’s State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate. “The fire was extinguished” and the site “seized by the military forces of the Russian Federation”. The nuclear power station appears to be operating safely with staff in place.

Nonetheless, with Vladimir Putin sounding increasingly erratic and Chernobyl’s former nuclear plant already under Russian control, it is no wonder that people everywhere are feeling nervous.

Paul Dorfman, a nuclear expert based at the University of Sussex, admits he didn’t sleep last night and finds it difficult to be reassured about the situation. “When you go to see a doctor with a broken leg, you don’t expect her to say, don’t worry, carry on walking.”

Nuclear power plants are designed “to take certain kinds of hits and to keep in radiation if there is a problem,” acknowledges Dorfman. But they are proofed against problems such as a “laden plane ploughing in” not full-scale military attacks. “If you really get a hit and the [containment buildings] were to break, we would have a full-on catastrophe,” he states mildly. “But that has not happened so far.”

“There is a war, and so we have to be worried, but nuclear and space are the industries where security rules are most severe,” says Nicolas Mazzucchi, a research fellow at the Strategic Research Foundation, a French think tank.

“I would say there is not a large risk,” says Leon Cizelj, the president of the European Nuclear Society. “In very rough terms, you can’t damage a nuclear power station accidentally. To have another Fukushima would really require a very stark attack.” He also adds that: “A nuclear power plant cannot explode as a nuclear bomb.”

Experts thankfully seem doubtful that Putin, even in his current state of mind, would want to attack a nuclear reactor with the aim of causing serious damage. Those immediately impacted would be Russian soldiers and, in all likelihood, Russia would be affected by escaping radiation.

[See also: Is nuclear energy a sustainable solution to climate change?]

However, even if Putin’s aim is to shut down the power grid across Ukraine, without destroying reactors, this course of action would also have implications for the country’s nuclear power stations. Ukraine operates four nuclear plants with 15 reactors, and is the seventh biggest nuclear power producer globally. In Europe, only France and Slovakia produce more electricity from nuclear power. Nuclear reactors can’t just be shut down and, even if essentially offline, still need to be cooled. Modern power stations, however, are equipped with secondary power sources, namely diesel generators, which should be able to keep cooling for weeks and avoid problems, but in a time of war, this would all need to be handled correctly,

In the longer term, events in Ukraine could well change the mood towards nuclear power further afield. Since Cop26, the international climate conference held in Glasgow at the end of last year, nuclear has been increasingly touted by various countries as a solution to the climate crisis. It remains to be seen if this trend will change, but some are already convinced it will.

“What seems very important about this is the dawning realisation that civil nuclear reactors pose a very real security threat in an increasingly destabalised world, with significant implications for the use or development of new nuclear,” says Dorfman. 

“I think after last night’s attack new nuclear will become even more politically toxic and in any case it will become more expensive,” says the UK-based energy expert Julian Popov. “We saw how after Chernobyl and after Fukushima the cost of nuclear went up dramatically. We can expect the same thing will happen here.”

Countries with older nuclear reactors may also be in a greater hurry to make sure they are as well protected from potential hits as the newer generation of reactors that have come online more recently. France has 56 nuclear reactors, of which ten are currently out of service for various reasons, including safety and security concerns.

Cizelj says he is “half-joking, half-optimistic” that for simple economic reasons, it is not in Russia’s interest to destroy Ukraine’s nuclear power stations. “These are Russian reactors, they were built by Russia and Russia is a major exporter. It’s a bit like if you buy a car and then the seller comes to your house and cuts the tyres, its not good for business.”

[See also: Our addiction to oil has paid for Putin’s war]

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