ZNPP: a Catastrophe Waiting to Happen

A meltdown at Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant grows more likely with every passing day.  With a meltdown, radioactive water from the plant would flow into the Dnieper River, which empties into the Black Sea, and thence to the Mediterranean.  See below for map.   The consequences would be catastrophic for Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.  Clearly this is an international problem.  It calls out for an international solution.

Perhaps it is time to send in UN Peacekeeping Forces.

ZNPP has been at risk for a Fukushima-type meltdown since the Russians occupied the plant in March 2022.  It sits on the front line of the war, the south side of the Dnieper River.   The Russians quickly occupied the south side early in their invasion; the Ukrainians still occupy the north side.

The International Atomic Energy Agency was able to establish a presence at ZNPP after months of lobbying by its Director- General Mariano Grossi.  He has personally visited twice and gets daily updates from the IAEA personnel on site.  His latest report can be found here.

Grossi has been trying for almost a year to negotiate a safety zone around ZNPP.  After his visit to the plant on 3/29/23, Grossi stressed that the increasing combat makes it urgent to find a way to prevent a potentially catastrophic nuclear accident.

He complains that he is not getting support from the UN, and even from his own agency.   The EU issued a statement a few months ago but is not keeping the pressure on.  Given the potential for catastrophe, it is astounding that more attention is not being given to the need to support Grossi’s efforts.

Instead, the media publishes reassuring articles about how many safety features ZNPP has.

Safety features are useless if the cooling water stops circulating around the nuclear material.  The reactors have been shut down, so the pumps need an external power source.

The main power lines cross the Dnieper to the Ukraine energy grid on the north side of the river.  The back up lines connect to conventionally fired plants in Ukrainian territory.  They are right on the front line, and mortar fire from either side can cut them.

Since the invasion, all the external power lines to the plant- 4 major lines and 2-4 backup lines- have been cut simultaneously at least SIX times, forcing the pumps to rely on emergency diesel generators.  As Grossi says Each time we are rolling a dice…And if we allow this to continue time after time, then one day our luck will run out.”

Without the constant circulation of cooling water, the nuclear fuel would overheat, resulting in a chain reaction and meltdown.   This is what happened at Fukushima Daiichi 1; the earthquake and tsunami cut off the power and the pumps stopped working.  A huge discharge of radioactive water into the vast Pacific Ocean continued for several years, until an ice wall was built around the damaged reactors.

Within three years after the Fukushima disaster, there were massive die-offs throughout the Pacific.  Mollusks in particular suffered, and the result went up the food chain, so that sea mammals were starving and mutated.  The sea bird population was decimated.

A meltdown at ZNPP would release large amounts of radioactive water into a much smaller body of water than the Pacific Ocean.  The Dnieper River empties into the Black Sea and eventually into the Mediterranean.  All the countries which border the Mediterranean would be affected.  The consequences are unthinkable.

The circulation of cooling water could fail for another reason.  It cycles through a holding pond nearby.  Because of the constant influx of warm water from the reactors, still hot even in shutdown mode, the pond is prone to algae growth, which could clog the intake valves and stop the water flow.  It is stocked with tropical fish, which eat the algae and keep the water clear.

The cooling pond is at risk. Global warming may cause the pond to overheat this summer, killing the scavenging fish.  One report says that the Russians are allowing the water level in the pond to drop.

Yet another hazard is worker error.  This is what caused the explosion at Chernobyl in 1986.  There, a routine 20-second shut down of the system seemed to be another test of the electrical equipment. But seven seconds later, a surge created a chemical explosion that released nearly 520 dangerous radionuclides into the atmosphere.

ZNPP was built by the Soviet Union from 1980-86, but became Ukrainian when that empire broke up in 1991.  Since then, ZNPP has undergone enough safety modifications that only technicians knowledgeable about that specific plant can run it safely.

The Ukrainian engineers at ZNPP have continued to work under the guns of Russian soldiers, sometimes subject to beatings, torture, even kidnapping and disappearing.  They have worked way beyond their shifts at times, often cold and hungry.  Most of their families in the nearby Russian-occupied town have left.  Still, these dedicated workers struggle on, more concerned about the safety of the plant than their own safety.

After thousands of votes were cast from nearly 80 countries, the Energoatom workers at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) were selected as the 2022 Arms Control Persons of the Year.

“Russia’s illegal and unprecedented occupation of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant created an untenable nuclear safety and security situation,” said Kelsey Davenport, ACA’s director for nonproliferation policy, in a statement. “In the face of harassment and threats by Russian forces, Ukrainian personnel have continued to operate the plant and avert a nuclear crisis.”

And the harassment continues.  “In the evening of 6 April 2023, masked invaders broke into one of the premises of the temporarily occupied ZNPP and took away four employees of the plant’s physical protection service. The nuclear workers were taken away in an unknown direction, and their whereabouts remain unknown…

“One way or another, the situation at the ZNPP is becoming more and more intense: inspections and search for ‘unreliable’ people are intensifying, and even cooperation with the occupiers does not save them from the basement [the way torture chambers are called – ed.] or interrogations,” Energoatom summarised. Ukrainska Pravda Fri, April 7, 2023

ZNPP still belongs to Ukraine according to international law, despite Russian claims to the contrary.   When Russia held fake elections in the 4 southern Ukrainian oblasts (provinces) in December 2022, they declared that all 4, including Zaporizhzhya Oblast, now belonged to Russia.  They laid claim to ZNPP and began pressuring the Ukrainian workers to sign contracts with Rosatom, the Russian nuclear agency.

“The IAEA mission confirms that the Russians are operating the plant in such a way that the condition of equipment and facilities at the (Zaporizhzhia) NPP is significantly deteriorating. There is a feeling that one of the goals of the invaders is to leave it to us in a non-working state after de-occupation,” Galushchenko, the Energy Minister of Ukraine, said.

Now Ukraine is preparing a counteroffensive, which will include the area around ZNPP.  They are eager to recapture the plant itself, which supplied 20% of Ukraine’s energy prior to the invasion.  They know that Russia is trying to reconnect the power lines to the Russian grid, restart the reactors, and steal the energy.

The Russians are preparing for a battle around ZNPP.  They have placed sandbags and gun emplacements on top of the reactors.  The area around the plant has been mined, and the workers are being held hostage, not allowed to leave the grounds.

A fixed battle directly on the grounds of ZNPP could well lead to worker mistake and a meltdown.  Or an intense battle could cut all the power lines, and blow up the backup diesel fuel.  It is easy to imagine other scenarios.

Below is a map of the Black Sea.

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The Dneiper River flows into the Black Sea between the Crimean peninsula and Moldava.  Countries bordering it include Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey.   Turkey straddles The Dardenelles, the narrow gate through which the Black Sea empties into the Aegean, a branch of the Mediterranean.

Countries bordering the Mediterranean include Greece, Albania, the previous Yugoslav countries, Italy, France, Spain, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon,  and Syria.  Nuclear pollution of the Mediterranean could wipe out aquatic life and cause deaths, cancers, mutations all along its shores.

Clearly this is an international problem.  The danger of a meltdown at ZNPP is real; the consequences would be catastrophic for Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.

Grossi has been shuttling between Moscow and Kiev, now having to include the military on both sides in discussions.  Since this is an active war zone, and likely to become more so,  establishing a cease-fire zone is nearly impossible.  Recapturing the plant is a major goal for Ukraine, which makes it even more difficult.

An international response could start with much stronger support for Grossi.  It may be that a UN Peacekeeping Force is required to stabilize the situation.  Ownership of the plant will continue to be contested unless Russian troops are ousted from the area, but at least they could be prevented from actively engaging in combat.  Also, the workers could be safeguarded so they can continue to maintain safety.

Usually, the UN Security Council must approve deployment of the Blue Hats.  With Russia now chairing, this is unlikely. There is a mechanism by which the Security Council can be bypassed.  

In accordance with the General Assembly’s “Uniting for Peace” resolution of November 1950 [resolution 377 (V)], if the Security Council fails to act, owing to the negative vote of a permanent member, then the General Assembly may act. This would happen in the case where there appears to be a threat to the peace, breach of the peace or act of aggression. The General Assembly can consider the matter with a view to making recommendations to Members for collective measures to maintain or restore international peace and security.  https://peacekeeping.un.org/en/role-of-general-assembly

Resolution 377  (V) can be invoked by any 7 members of the Security Council, or by a majority of UN members.  Right now, 3 Security Council Members have coastlines on the Mediterranean- France, Malta and Albania.  They might be able to persuade England, the US, and some of the southern hemisphere states who are currently members to join them.

Alternatively, as it is in the interest of all non-nuclear states to strengthen the international rule of law in nuclear matters, the 197 signatories to the new Treaty to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons might bring this to the General Assembly.

A meltdown at ZNPP would result from the initial act of aggression on the part of Russia in occupying the plant.  Thus Resolution 377 (V) should be applicable.  Considering the terrible consequences of a meltdown there, something should be done ASAP.