Will Putin’s troops cause another Chernobyl? Russian-held Ukrainian nuclear plant cut off from power


The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in the middle of the fighting in Ukraine was temporarily cut off from the electrical grid on Thursday because of fire damage.

Ukraine’s state operator Energoatom said the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant was severed from the national network for the first time in its history after one of its four power line was twice disconnected by ash pit fires in an adjacent thermal power plant.

The three other power lines ‘were earlier damaged during terrorist attacks’ by Russian forces, the operator said.

The incident caused a blackout in the region and heightened fears of a catastrophe in a country haunted by the Chernobyl disaster.

The complex, Europe’s largest nuclear plant, has been occupied by Russian forces and operated by Ukrainian workers since the early days of the invasion six months ago in order to divert power to the Crimean peninsula annexed by Putin’s forces in 2014.

Satellite images showed ash heaps at the nuclear site burning, enabling the Russian shutdown

Satellite images showed ash heaps at the nuclear site burning, enabling the Russian shutdown

The occupying forces claimed the fires made continuous power flows impossible

The occupying forces claimed the fires made continuous power flows impossible

Russian fire and artillery damage to Europe’s biggest nuclear facility, in war-torn south-eastern Ukraine, reportedly forced its occupiers to unplug the site to protect energy flows to Moscow-held territories.

Energoatom had warned this morning that such a move would jeopardise its cooling systems and risk a mass nuclear meltdown.

Energoatom confirmed via Telegram this afternoon: ‘The actions of the invaders caused a complete disconnection of [Zaporizhzhia] from the power grid – the first in the history of the plant.

Europe's biggest nuclear power plant is pictured across the water in Nikopol, southern Ukraine

Europe’s biggest nuclear power plant is pictured across the water in Nikopol, southern Ukraine

An unidentified worker holds a Geiger counter showing increased radiation near the plant

An unidentified worker holds a Geiger counter showing increased radiation near the plant

Why is a loss of power to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant so dangerous?

External power is essential to cool the two reactors still in operation at the Zaporizhzhia site.

Without electricity to power the pumps which keep the hot reactor core cool, nuclear fuel will start to melt. 

Last week, while the final power line was still connected, Ukraine’s nuclear agency said losing the supply would lead to this happening, ‘resulting in a release of radioactive substances to the environment’. 

A power supply is also vital to keep spent radioactive fuel stored in special onsite facilities cool.

Speaking last week, Professor Paul Norman, Professor of Nuclear Physics & Nuclear Energy at the University of Birmingham told the Science Media Centre that nuclear reactors need constant cooling, even after they have been shut down. 

He added that: ‘Damaging certain cooling systems could also prevent the reactor from properly cooling itself and lead to overheating – a ‘meltdown’.’ 

The plant has backup diesel generators to provide electricity if it is disconnected from the grid but Ukraine has warned these are unlikely to be reliable in the long-term.

‘There are currently no comments on the operation of automation and safety systems.

‘Start-up operations are underway to connect one of the power units to the grid.’

The dire update came as Ukrainian staff at the nuclear power plant said they are being tortured by FSB agents to prevent them from telling UN safety inspectors about the risks at the site.

Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are expected to have access to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in the coming days.  

But workers at the occupied plant said they fear Russia will set up false flag attacks for when the IAEA inspectors arrive that they will blame on Ukraine.

Continued fighting near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant has heightened fears of a Chernobyl-style catastrophe that could affect hundreds of thousands of people.

Regional mayor Dmytro Orlov said nearby Russian-occupied town Enerhodar was in the midst of a blackout and residents had no access to running water as a result of the disconnection. 

Zaporizhzhia has been occupied by Moscow’s troops since the first weeks of the war.

It has remained on the frontlines ever since, with Moscow and Kyiv trading blame over shelling around the complex.

Energoatom said the plant was disconnected from Ukraine’s national supply system after a power line was twice disconnected by fires at ash pits in an adjacent thermal power plant.

The three other power lines ‘were earlier damaged during terrorist attacks’ by Russian forces, the operator said.

As a result, the two of the plant’s six reactors still functioning ‘were disconnected from the network’.

Kyiv officials have said they believe Moscow has seized the station in order to divert power to the Crimean peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014.

Energoatom could not be immediately reached for comment on whether the supply had been diverted, AFP reported.

Earlier today Energoatom chief Petro Kotin said he has seen Russian engineers’ detailed plans to cut off the power plant from Ukraine’s power grid and instead connect it to the Russian network in the event that fighting severs the remaining power lines.

Kotin feared that Putin‘s men are now targeting the plant’s power lines connecting it to Ukraine’s grid to make that scenario a reality, The Guardian reported. 

If Russia’s plan went ahead, he said, it would lead to a catastrophic failure of the cooling systems. 

External power is essential not just to cool the two reactors still in operation at the Zaporizhzhia site, but also the spent radioactive fuel stored in special facilities onsite.

Ukraine claims Russia is essentially holding the Soviet-era nuclear plant hostage, storing weapons there and launching attacks from around it.

Kotin feared Russian forces are targeting the plant’s power lines that connect the site to Ukraine’s grid so that Russia can connect the plant to their power network.

He told the newspaper: ‘You cannot just switch from one system to another immediately. You have to shutdown everything on one side, and then you start to switch on another side.’

Kotin added: ‘During this disconnection, the plant won’t be connected to any power supply and that is the reason for the danger. If you fail to provide cooling… for one one hour and a half, then you will have melting already.’

Footage that appears taken inside Zaporizhzhia shows 'Russian military trucks stored inside'

Footage that appears taken inside Zaporizhzhia shows ‘Russian military trucks stored inside’

Ukrainian operator Energoatom (office at Zaporizhzhia pictured on Monday) blamed Moscow

Ukrainian operator Energoatom (office at Zaporizhzhia pictured on Monday) blamed Moscow

President Macron (centre) hosts members of UN nuclear watchdog the IAEA in Paris

President Macron (centre) hosts members of UN nuclear watchdog the IAEA in Paris

Zaporizhzhia (pictured on Monday) has been unplugged from the grid for the first time ever

Zaporizhzhia (pictured on Monday) has been unplugged from the grid for the first time ever 

To add to the safety concerns, shocking video that appears to have been taken from inside the plant has revealed Russian military hardware being inside a turbine hall – just feet away from one of the reactors.

Footage emerged last week showing the inside of what looks like a turbo-generator hall, with at least five Russian military trucks parked inside next to a stack of crates.

While it is not clear from the footage exactly what the trucks are doing there, they have ‘Z’ war markings on the hoods and are painted camouflage green – almost certainly meaning they are being used by the Russian armed forces.

The video is the clearest evidence that has yet emerged to back Ukrainian assertions that Russia is storing explosives and other military hardware in and around the nuclear reactors, risking a disaster which could blanket Europe in radioactive ash.

If the video was indeed taken in a turbo-generator hall – as seems likely from machinery visible in the footage – then it would mean the trucks are just 100ft (30m) from a reactor, putting it at risk in the event of an explosion.

Kotin said he is extremely concerned about the risk that these military vehicles could blow up and cause a fire at the site. 

‘In case there is a fire in the turbine hall you don’t even have a possibility to put it out or mitigate the consequences of this fire, because your fire brigades cannot get in, because any entry is blocked by the trucks packed in there,’ he said. 

Kotin added: ‘This situation is very dangerous not only for the plant [and] for Ukraine, but also for the whole world because you never can say what the weather would be like and what the wind direction [would be].’

One engineer, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told The Telegraph that many of their colleagues have been arrested on their way to work. 

Pictured: A Russian soldier stands guard outside the nuclear plant amid the occupation

Pictured: A Russian soldier stands guard outside the nuclear plant amid the occupation

‘Now I understand that their army is weak, but their FSB service is working. 

‘One of their methods here is to take the control room workers to the basement,’ said the engineer, using a Russian word for detention and torture by Russia’s secret police. 

‘Our management keeps silent about it, not to create panic, but people who return after those basement ‘conversations’ don’t say anything at all. 

‘It will be no surprise if during the mission they will suddenly start saying what they were told to say.’

Workers who have left the plant told the newspaper that the workforce has been cut to dangerously low levels while landmines have been placed around the cooling pond. 

‘It feels like we’re in a strict regime prison: constant psychological pressure, no way to contact families as they cut off all communications and banned cell phones,’ one said.

Satellite image by Maxar Technologies shows Zaporizhzhia from high above nine days ago

Satellite image by Maxar Technologies shows Zaporizhzhia from high above nine days ago

‘We can’t monitor the active equipment of the station because they prohibit movement within the territory at night. They put their equipment in the turbine halls and prohibit passage, it constantly causes conflict between the workers and the Russian troops,’ another said.

The fear that the ongoing conflict near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant could lead to disaster is palpable just across the Dnieper River in Nikopol, where residents have been under nearly constant Russian shelling since July 12, with eight people killed, 850 buildings damaged and over the half the population of 100,000 fleeing the city.

Liudmyla Shyshkina, a 74-year-old widow who lived within sight of the Zaporizhzhia plant before her apartment was bombarded and her husband killed, said she believes the Russians are capable of intentionally causing a nuclear disaster.

Fighting in early March caused a brief fire at the plant’s training complex, which officials said did not result in the release of any radiation.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky says Russia’s military actions there amount to ‘nuclear blackmail’.

No civilian nuclear plant is designed for a wartime situation, although the buildings housing Zaporizhzhia’s six reactors are protected by reinforced concrete that could withstand an errant shell, experts say.

The more immediate concern was that disruptions to the electricity supply of the plant would knock out cooling systems that are essential for the safe operation of the reactors, with emergency diesel generators sometimes unreliable.

The pools where spent fuel rods are kept to be cooled also are vulnerable to shelling, which could cause the release of radioactive material.

Kyiv told UN nuclear watchdog the International Atomic Energy Agency that shelling earlier this week damaged transformers at a nearby conventional power plant, disrupting electricity supplies to the Zaporizhzhia plant for several hours.

‘These incidents show why the IAEA must be able to send a mission to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant very soon,’ said agency head Rafael Mariano Grossi, adding that he expected that to happen ‘within the next few days, if ongoing negotiations succeed’.

At a UN Security Council meeting on Tuesday, UN political chief Rosemary DiCarlo urged the withdrawal of all military personnel and equipment from the plant and an agreement on a demilitarised zone around it.

Currently only one of the plant’s four power lines connecting it to the grid is operational, the agency said. External power is essential not just to cool the two reactors still in operation but also the spent radioactive fuel stored in special facilities onsite.

‘If we lose the last one, we are at the total mercy of emergency power generators,’ said Najmedin Meshkati, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Southern California.

If an incident at the Zaporizhzhia plant were to release significant amounts of radiation, the scale and location of the contamination would be determined largely by the weather, said Paul Dorfman, a nuclear safety expert at the University of Sussex who has advised the British and Irish governments.

The massive earthquake and tsunami that hit the Fukushima plant destroyed cooling systems which triggered meltdowns in three of its reactors. Much of the contaminated material was blown out to sea, limiting the damage.

The April 26, 1986, explosion and fire at one of four reactors at the Chernobyl nuclear plant north of Kyiv sent a cloud of radioactive material across a wide swath of Europe and beyond.

In addition to fuelling anti-nuclear sentiment in many countries, the disaster left deep psychological scars on Ukrainians.



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