The Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant is under attack. It is dangerous?

The Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant is on the front line of the war between Russia and Ukraine. What is the risk of a nuclear disaster and how far does the danger extend? The engineer answers these and four other questions.

What is happening in Zaporizhzhya?

Near the city of Enerhodar in Ukraine, on the river Dnieper, is the largest nuclear power plant in Europe. It consists of six nuclear reactors and supplies twenty percent of Ukraine’s electricity. It is the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant – named after the much larger city fifty kilometers away. The facility is currently in the hands of the Russians and has been bombarded with artillery and rockets a few times, that much is clear. Ukraine and Russia blame each other for this. There are damages, such as a fire in a hydrogen pipeline and a power failure at one of the reactors.

It is dangerous?

So far, no reactors have been damaged and no additional radiation has been released. Director Rafael Mariano Grossi from International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN’s nuclear watchdog, has released a statement saying it is deeply concerned. He considers the risk of a nuclear disaster very real, which would threaten public health and the environment in Ukraine and far beyond, Grossi said. He therefore insists that observers and security experts from the IAEA must be allowed access to the facility to monitor, but so far without success.

Is such a plant protected from shelling and missile attacks?

Nuclear power plants are extremely well protected against all sorts of unexpected circumstances. The Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant – like our own in Borssele – is in principle even resistant to crashed or deliberately arriving aircraft. However, the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant is quite old. It dates from the 1980s, like the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. In 1986, a large reactor exploded, leading to the worst nuclear disaster ever. The safety of nuclear power plants has become many times safer since then.

According to Mark van Bourgondiën, team leader Radiation, Waste and Decommissioning at the Authority for Nuclear Safety and Radiation Protection (ANVS), the chance of a nuclear disaster at Zaporizhzhya is very small. In a Delta news release from TU Delft, he says: ‘The nuclear reactors at the Zaporizhia power plant can be compared to the Dutch Borssele power plant, a safer design than the one at Chernobyl. Even if the dome is hit in battle, it does not necessarily mean a nuclear disaster.’

The concerns primarily concern the staff, who become overtired and therefore less attentive if it is not possible to rotate in time.

If a nuclear disaster happens, what will we notice in the Netherlands?

An accident at a nuclear power plant in Ukraine will not lead to radiation levels in the Netherlands that require immediate measures such as evacuation or taking iodine tablets, the ANVS emphasizes.

In the worst case, temporary measures for the food supply would be needed in the event of an accident in the Netherlands, as after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, RIVM spokesman Ronald Kooren also emailed. Kooren: ‘The cattle then had to stay in the barn for a few days, so that the radioactivity would not enter the milk via the grass.’

Why shouldn’t we endure more radiation here?

Because we are so far from Zaporizhzhya. It’s over two thousand miles from here. Moscow is about a thousand kilometers twice as close to the nuclear power plant as we are.

In a video from the University of the Netherlands, Wout Moerman from Radboudumc explains it clearly, but from a Tsar Bomb scenario. It is the largest nuclear bomb ever tested.

Such a bomb kills everyone within a four kilometer radius with a large fireball, destroys everything within a 35 kilometer radius with a giant shock wave, and gives people up to 100 kilometers away third degree burns from the heat released. However, the radiation ‘only’ reaches a maximum of ten kilometres.

The problem for areas further away, however, is that a nuclear explosion creates an enormous radioactive dust cloud – the well-known mushroom. This radioactive material travels through the upper atmosphere and swirls down again in more distant places: the so-called fallout. Where that material ends up and when depends mainly on the wind.

Because monitoring is carried out every hour in Europe, we can now see such a radioactive cloud arrive days in advance, says RIVM.

In the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the radioactive cloud reached the Netherlands after a week. The radiation we received that year averaged 2.5 percent more than we normally endure from natural radiation. It is less than the amount of radiation from an X-ray.

Opening image: Ralph1969, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

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