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Attacks on Ukrainian nuclear-power plants challenge treaties, and raise other safety concerns

Researchers and policymakers must ask new questions. Are other locations at risk, given the projected global growth in nuclear energy?

As the crisis at the Zaporizhzhia plant worsens, international agreements need to be extended to ensure nuclear safety during war.

Nature Anthony Burke, 3 Nov 22,

This year marked the first time in which civilian nuclear-power facilities have come under attack during war. As Russian armed forces pushed into Ukraine in February, troops took control of the Chernobyl nuclear exclusion zone, where hundreds of people still manage the aftermath of the catastrophic 1986 meltdown. Thousands of vehicles stirred up radioactive dust as they moved towards Kyiv. Russian soldiers worked and slept in the deadly ‘red zone’ near the abandoned city of Pripyat.

In March, Russian armoured vehicles and tanks took control of the Zaporizhzhia power station — Europe’s largest nuclear power plant. Conditions rapidly deteriorated. Today, all six reactors are shut down. In August, Russia used artillery located at the plant to shell the city of Nikopol, provoking counterattacks from Ukrainian forces. As witnessed by an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) team sent to report on the situation in September, shelling has disconnected main power lines, knocked out radiation-detection sensors and damaged water pipes, walkways, the fire station and the building housing fresh nuclear fuel and solid radioactive waste1. More power losses in October left backup diesel generators as the only electricity supply to keep fuel rods cool. External power was restored, only to be disrupted again by a landmine explosion. One wrong move, and another Chernobyl could be possible.

The international community must urgently address the inadequacy of nuclear-safety architecture, policy and preparedness.

The powers of the IAEA are limited. It has responded in a rapid and principled way to the crisis in Ukraine, after being unable to prevent the Fukushima disaster following the Tohoku earthquake in Japan in 2011. But the international Convention on Nuclear Safety — one of several treaties that the IAEA serves to reinforce — was never designed to grapple with the nightmare of nuclear-power stations coming under military attack. As a ‘soft-law’ instrument, it allows states to create their own regulatory mechanisms with weak international oversight.

Researchers and policymakers must ask new questions. Are other locations at risk, given the projected global growth in nuclear energy? How do Russia’s actions in Ukraine challenge the world’s commitment to the ‘peaceful uses’ of nuclear energy and to international mechanisms for countering nuclear-weapons proliferation? Can current treaties be adapted, or is a more robust legal architecture and rapid-response capability required? And how can political obstacles be overcome?

Unsafe conditions

Conditions at Zaporizhzhia are “not sustainable and could lead to increased human error with implications on nuclear safety”, the IAEA warned in September1. Ukrainian plant staff are working under duress after Rosatom, the Russian energy company, took control and a Russian holding company was established. Energoatom, Ukraine’s state nuclear-energy company, has reported that the plant’s deputy director and head of human resources have been detained and that others are being pressured to sign contracts with Rosatom. The plant’s director, Igor Murashov, was earlier arrested by Russian forces, interrogated and expelled from Russian-held territory.

The integrity of reactor cores and storage pools is the main concern. If fuel rods are exposed, a core meltdown and uncontrolled release of radiation is likely, as happened at Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 19792. “And so, one mine or one missile or whatever”, warned Ukraine’s energy minister Herman Halushchenko, “could stop the working of the generators and then you have one hour and probably 30 minutes, not more than 2 hours, before the reaction starts.”

Russian control of the plant also delayed the IAEA from conducting its required annual inspection, which is crucial for ensuring safety and verifying the secure disposal of nuclear fuel and preventing its diversion for military uses1.

Nuclear-power plants elsewhere in Ukraine are also under threat. Shelling has been reported at the Khmelnytskyy plant in Netishyn, and cruise missiles have overflown the South Ukraine plant in Yuzhnoukrainsk. And Ukraine’s energy infrastructure across the country is coming under attack, including substations linked to nuclear plants.………………………………….

more https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-022-03580-0

November 3, 2022 - Posted by | safety, Ukraine

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