“We are worried. We don’t want another Chernobyl,” said the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday (18 August). It’s hard to disagree.
He was speaking to the press after talks with the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and the UN secretary general António Guterres in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. About 1,000 kilometres east of Lviv lies the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. It was captured by the Russians during the first weeks of their invasion of Ukraine back in March. In recent weeks, the area has come under heavy rocket fire, causing damage to the facility’s non-radioactive elements. Kyiv and Moscow have blamed each other for the attacks, and Ukraine has also accused Russia of using the plant as a “nuclear shield” from which to launch attacks on surrounding areas.
Ukraine now says the situation at the plant is “approaching critical”. Guterres described any potential damage as “suicide”. However, the Russians have refused appeals to demilitarise the zone around the plant and have come up with an assortment of pretexts for reasons why officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency can’t visit. They have said it is too dangerous to enter from the Kyiv-controlled side and that the UN has blocked a visit – a claim the UN has sharply denied.
The risks should be kept in proportion: the reactors at Zaporizhzhia are of a much safer type than those at Chernobyl. They are protected by a secondary containment system, a steel-reinforced concrete building that is designed to withstand attack, even a plane crash. However, there is also a storage facility for spent fuel – a set of ponds where fuel is left to cool before it is moved to a final storage location. “If coolant is lost from the ponds, either by a direct hit which breaches containment structures or by a meltdown of the core due to losses of power,” warns a briefing from the Chatham House think tank, “the stored fuel will heat up. If the temperature rises above around 900 degrees Celsius, the cladding… will ignite, leading to the spreading of radioactive material.”
[See also: The battle for Kherson has begun]
Only two of Zaporizhzhia’s six reactors are still operational. Three out of the four power lines connecting the plant to the Ukrainian grid have been damaged. Ukrainian officials believe the Russians want to sever the connection and reattach the plant to the Russian grid, from where it could power Russian-held territories, including the Crimean peninsula – which was occupied and illegally annexed by Moscow in 2014.
Both Russia and Ukraine have warned that the other side will stage a “provocation” at Zaporizhzhia. The Ukrainians claim the non-operational staff at the plant were given the day off on 19 August. None of the assertions are easy to verify, but they indicate just how high tensions are running.
On 4 March, in the second week of the invasion, I was on the Hungarian border of Ukraine with my colleague Phil Clarke Hill, covering the refugee crisis as millions of people fled for safety. We were driving through the countryside at night when the song “99 Red Balloons” came on the radio. To hear a song about nuclear apocalypse on the day Russian forces first bombed the Zaporizhzhia power plant was the opposite of reassuring.
If there is serious damage to the plant, a quick response will be critical. At Chernobyl in 1986, the authoritarian reflex of secrecy made a terrible accident much worse. And this tendency to secrecy persists much more strongly in Russia than in Ukraine. When I spoke to the eminent Ukrainian historian Serhii Plokhy in April, he told me, “When an accident happens and you are a person living in the vicinity, your chances of protecting yourself are much better if you live in a democracy.”