Nuclear plants in Ukraine are in Putin’s sights. A strategy designed to undermine Ukrainian resistance to invasion, but the tactic carries serious risks, say observers and experts. After the advanced Russian forces have captured the former Ukrainian nuclear power plant in Chernobyl and the still operational one in Zaporizhzhia, Moscow’s target could be a third plant. Konstantinovkain the South. French President Emmanuel Macron said Monday that a key West priority was to avoid “catastrophes” related to Ukrainian nuclear power plants during the Russian invasion.
Putin’s nuclear target
With 15 operational reactors, Ukraine is the world’s seventh largest producer of nuclear electricity, according to 2020 data from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The country, which relies on nuclear power for more than half of its energy production, has made significant improvements to plant safety over the years, experts say. Zaporizhzhia has six reactors, with a more modern and safer design than the one in use in Chernobyl, where the worst nuclear disaster in history occurred in 1986.
Turn off the light
Russia has probably made the conquest of Ukrainian nuclear power plants a priority as this “allows them to cut off electricity supplies to large cities,” international relations analyst Jean-Marc Balencie told AFP. “One of the goals of the Russians is to convince people to leave, to exhaust the resistance and the will to defend the resistance,” explained Balencie. “No more electricity means no more heating, no running water, no refrigerators or freezers.” A French military source told AFP that the Russians “will want to take all nuclear power plants to increase the pressure” on the Ukrainians. For his part, Russian leader Vladimir Putin told Macron that he had “no intention of attacking nuclear power plants” and was “ready to act in line with the rules of the IAEA,” he informed Paris.
The Konstantinovka power plant
Russian forces could be within range of Ukrainian artillery positioned to protect the three reactors of Konstantinovka, in southern Ukraine, located between Kherson – the first major city conquered by the Russians – and the port of Odessa on the Black Sea, a possible target. future. Most of the Ukrainian reactors “were designed by the Soviets and the projects are kept in Moscow,” explained a French military source. Once the army has control of a site, the Russians “can bring their own engineering teams to take over the plant,” the source added. Another option is to force local staff to continue running the site, as appears to be the case in Chernobyl. The IAEA has warned that more than 200 security and maintenance workers have been prevented from leaving the plant since Russian forces occupied the site on 24 February. “The Russians took control of Chernobyl as the night shift was ending. The day shift has never been able to go back to the plant, ”Natasha, whose father works on the reactor and who she asked to remain anonymous, told AFP.
This poses a problem given the strict division of duties between night and day shifts, he added. “There is nuclear fuel that is kept in a special tank, under certain conditions in terms of temperature, amount of minerals and so on,” explained Natasha. “But the night shift doesn’t have access to this data. If the fuel is not maintained properly, this could create a risk, such as a small explosion. ‘ Working around the clock with just one meal a day, lack of medicine or sanitation, and lack of sleep are also starting to take their toll. On Monday, “an employee has fled to an exclusion zone and no one can find him,” stranded 60 kilometers from the nearest town in the dead of winter, Natasha said.
The nuclear disaster
The Russian capture of Zaporizhzhia, some 170 kilometers north of the Russian-annexed Crimean peninsula of Ukraine, raised the specter of a worldwide nuclear disaster as bombs hit the plant and caused damage. For now it is unclear whether the nuclear power plant was hit on purpose or by accident, although vital structures appear to have remained intact. “We don’t have the impression that (the Russians) wanted to bomb the plant, but also that they didn’t even pay particular attention,” the French military source told AFP. The International Atomic Energy Agency says radiation levels have remained “normal” according to the latest readings. A fire broke out at the plant’s training facility, but there appears to have been no damage to the reactors. The head of the IAEA, Rafael Grossi, however, warned on Monday that “military operations at nuclear facilities have caused an unprecedented danger of a nuclear accident, putting the lives of people living in Ukraine and neighboring countries at risk, including the Russia”. Grossi offered to visit Ukraine to assess the security picture. Regardless of intentional or unintentional bombing, analyst Balencie told AFP that a nuclear accident could still occur if Ukrainian personnel try to sabotage the plants. Resistance fighters could even attack a nuclear power plant in Russia, he added. “We are in a world where things that seem impossible one night become very real the next day,” said Balencie.