The Precarious Situation At Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant : Short Wave The world has been warily watching the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in Ukraine. The nuclear complex is being held by Russian forces, while the plant itself is being run by an increasingly ragged and exhausted Ukrainian workforce. Shells have fallen on the complex, and external power sources have been repeatedly knocked out, endangering the system that cools the nuclear reactors and raising the specter of a meltdown. NPR's Kat Lonsdorf reports from inside Ukraine.

How Freaked Out Should We Be About Ukraine's Nuclear Plant?

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EMILY KWONG, BYLINE: You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, HOST:

Hi there, SHORT WAVERS. It's Geoff Brumfiel.

KAT LONSDORF, HOST:

And Kat Lonsdorf.

BRUMFIEL: And for the past month or so, we've been watching things get increasingly dicey at Europe's largest nuclear plant.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Tonight, fears of a nuclear catastrophe at Europe's largest nuclear plant in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, are intensifying.

BRUMFIEL: There have been repeated strikes against the plant, and both sides are blaming each other for the shelling.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Ukrainian and Western officials have accused Russian forces of using the complex to launch attacks, leaving the Ukrainians unable to respond for fear of causing a disaster.

LONSDORF: The world's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, has gotten involved, and they're really worried.

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RAFAEL GROSSI: A nuclear power plant can never be a pawn of war. The consequences of such action are far too grave.

BRUMFIEL: So today on the show, Kat fills us in from inside Ukraine and the precarious situation at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant and helps us figure out how freaked out we should be about what's going on there.

LONSDORF: We're going to break down what we know so far and what the stakes are for Ukraine and the entire world.

BRUMFIEL: You're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

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BRUMFIEL: Hi there. It's Geoff Brumfiel again. I'm a science correspondent who covers all things nuclear for NPR. And we are going to take a break from the national parks series. We'll have that final episode for you soon. But today, we have Kat Lonsdorf, who's in Ukraine. She and I have been teaming up on this story to cover this. It's developed over the past few weeks. And, Kat, where are you right now?

LONSDORF: Well, we're recording this on Wednesday evening here in Ukraine, and I'm in Kyiv after a really long day of driving yesterday.

BRUMFIEL: So let's just dive straight into Zaporizhzhia. We know this is a huge nuclear complex that's been held by Russian forces since March. It's still being run by the Ukrainians. Ukrainian workers are showing up every day, but the Russian military are really the ones in charge. There's reports of workers being mistreated. And on top of that, in the past month, we've seen this really big rise in shelling. We don't know who's doing it. What's the latest going on at the plant right now?

LONSDORF: Well, it's tense. It's been tense for a while. First of all, there's still active fighting in the area around the nuclear power plant. And when the U.N. team, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the IAEA, finally managed to get into the facility earlier this month to inspect it, they came out really rattled. They actually had to take shelter inside a building during their inspection because there was active shelling nearby. You know, earlier, three shells landed in a building used to hold fresh nuclear fuel and some radioactive waste. That's not great. So this is very, very far from the ideal situation for running a nuclear power plant safely.

BRUMFIEL: And then there's the problem of electricity. Tell me about that.

LONSDORF: Yeah, the electricity problem is a big one. Nuclear reactors rely on cooling systems to keep them from overheating. And those systems run on electricity from outside the plant. So the shelling that's going on - it's taken out the four major power lines that connect the plant to the grid. It also took out the three backup lines. They've been restored for now, but those are the lines that bring energy into the plant. You know, in that situation, when there's no energy that can come into the plant, that's when you're looking at a potential meltdown. And, Geoff, from your reporting, we know that they've actually taken the whole plant offline and put it into what they call cold shutdown mode. But it's not exactly like turning a big off switch, right?

BRUMFIEL: That's right. You can't really turn off a nuclear reactor. The analogy I've been using is it's a bit like cooking with charcoal. So, you know, once you're done, those coals remain hot for a while. And nuclear reactors are the same. Once you shut down a reactor, there's still a lot of heat that needs to be managed. In the early days, it's a whole bunch. Once you reach this cold shutdown point, which in the U.S. is when the reactor core drops below 200 degrees Fahrenheit, it becomes more manageable. But you still have to keep water going through the core of a nuclear reactor pretty much indefinitely. And so that's going to be a real challenge, even though the plant is officially shut down now.

LONSDORF: Yeah, it's not like everyone working there can go home, and, you know, the plant can be empty, right? I mean...

BRUMFIEL: Right, totally.

LONSDORF: ...I spent some time in Fukushima. And, you know, even a decade out from the disaster that happened at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan, there were still thousands of people who go to work there every day to make sure that the cores don't melt down again. And that's when the plant produces absolutely no power.

BRUMFIEL: So those cooling systems at Zaporizhzhia have been running on backup power lines. But there's a lot of worry about what could happen if those lines get knocked out again. What happens if they lose power again?

LONSDORF: Yeah. So they do have these 20 emergency diesel generators on site. So those use diesel fuel to create electricity, which would then be used to keep the reactors cool. But the problem is that they run on that diesel fuel. And the IAEA earlier this month in its report said that there's enough fuel to last for about 10 days. So basically, if those lines got knocked out and we went to diesel generators, we would start kind of a big countdown clock for 10 days and wait to see kind of what happened when those diesel generators ran out of fuel. Now, of course, they could get more fuel in. But you have to remember that this is an active war zone, and Russia has control of the area around the plant. So it's really not clear how they would get more fuel in, who would sort out those logistics and how it would happen.

BRUMFIEL: Yeah. And on top of that, we are talking about an active war zone here. I mean, there's actual explosives occasionally hitting the complex itself. You know, what are the risks from munitions hitting the plant or the area around the plant?

LONSDORF: Well, I can tell you what it's not. It is not like triggering a nuclear bomb. We wouldn't expect to see a massive explosion and a mushroom cloud and everything. You know, the reactors themselves are extremely tough. They're built to withstand the force of a jumbo jet crashing into them. So they probably wouldn't break if a shell hit them, but there are a ton of vulnerable spots at this plant.

BRUMFIEL: Yeah. The war just adds this element of unpredictability. But there's another thing I want to talk about, which is the people, right?

LONSDORF: Yeah.

BRUMFIEL: I mean, workers are actually what make nuclear plants safe, not all these switches and dials. And there seems to be a lot of questions about what the workers are able to do, what kind of pressures they're under...

LONSDORF: Yeah.

BRUMFIEL: ...Just in their day-to-day jobs and outside of their jobs, in their homes. I wonder if you could speak a little about that.

LONSDORF: Yeah, honestly, to me, this is kind of the most heartbreaking part. These workers at the plant are almost like prisoners of war, the Ukrainians working there. The Russians have brought in their own nuclear experts, but the Ukrainians are still the only ones who know how to keep the plant running. So the Ukrainians who are running the plant are working under just extreme duress with a constant threat of both a nuclear accident, which they would feel really responsible for, but also the stress of living in a war zone. And there are all kinds of reports of workers and family members being threatened, harassed, tortured. And, of course, they can't take any time off or get any break from the stress. It's a really, really difficult position for these workers to be in.

I talked to the head of Ukraine's atomic energy generating association here. It's the organization that runs Zaporizhzhia, along with all the other nuclear power plants here. He's named Petro Kotin. And he told me that he knows already that one of his workers recently died after being severely beaten. Another maintenance worker was shot by Russians five times. He miraculously survived. But he also told me that he's heard that some 200 of his workers have been tortured at various times. And he says morale is just extremely low, as you can imagine.

BRUMFIEL: Wow. I mean, that just sounds so tough. So that's kind of the situation at the plant as things stand right now. But there's another question, which is how to think about Zaporizhzhia. One thing that keeps coming up is the 2011 Fukushima accident in Japan. What strikes you as similar and different between these two?

LONSDORF: Well, what happened at Fukushima does give us a pretty good idea of the risks at Zaporizhzhia. I'll just remind everyone real quick what happened at Fukushima back in 2011. There was a giant earthquake, which triggered a massive tsunami. And that tsunami hit the nuclear power plant. And all of its backup diesel generators were being stored in the basement. So they all flooded when the tsunami hit. That caused all the power to go out, and then those diesel generators were useless. So that meant they couldn't cool the reactors, which did cause a nuclear meltdown. One thing that's different about Ukraine - this is happening in the middle of an active war zone, and that could make it extremely difficult to respond to the situation if the worst does happen.

BRUMFIEL: Yeah. No, exactly. Exactly. You know, on the plus side, I mean, I've been talking to nuclear engineers here in the States, and there are some things that make it somewhat less likely we'd see a really bad accident like Fukushima. I mean, first of all, these reactors in Zaporizhzhia are actually more modern than the Fukushima reactors...

LONSDORF: Yeah.

BRUMFIEL: ...And better designed. They have a very heavy sort of containment structure around them that's specifically designed to hold in radioactive gases if there is a meltdown. And these reactors, as we've said, are already cooler than the ones at Fukushima. They're in cold shutdown.

LONSDORF: Right.

BRUMFIEL: That means that they won't melt down as quickly. Operators will have more time to respond and try and fix them if something does happen. But, you know, the stakes are just so high because if radioactive material does get out, what are the consequences for Ukraine and the rest of the world?

LONSDORF: A nuclear meltdown would obviously be a global disaster for a bunch of reasons, but it's probably not, you know, cancer from radiation that the wider world should be worrying about most. I mean, Ukrainians are facing the most direct risks from this. And any radioactive release would be dangerous to the people right nearby, you know, Ukrainians and Russians. The potential environmental damage locally could be immense. And this is a major grain-growing area. You know, we've been hearing a lot about people all over the world depending on this Ukrainian grain, you know, over the last couple months. And they've been really hurting since the war cut off most of the supply of it. So now imagine if radioactive contamination turned this entire area around Zaporizhzhia, which is rich farmland, into basically unfarmable land. That would be a disaster.

BRUMFIEL: Right. And you saw that firsthand at Fukushima, right? Abandoned rice fields.

LONSDORF: Yeah, exactly. And Fukushima was a big rice-growing area, a big fishing area. And, you know, now you see, again, like you said, a lot of abandoned rice fields. And a lot of fishermen had to stop fishing. And this isn't necessarily because you couldn't grow rice or catch fish there but also because the world didn't want to buy that product anymore. And I would fear that that could be the same scenario in Zaporizhzhia.

BRUMFIEL: Yeah, I think as we've learned from Fukushima, it's really, you know, the economic fallout in addition to the actual fallout that can be so damaging. What are you going to be looking at, you know, while you're in the country there with regards to the situation at Zaporizhzhia? What's on your mind?

LONSDORF: Well, the U.N. and a lot of other entities are trying to push for a demilitarized zone around the plant - so just to at least stop the fighting there. And they haven't made a ton of progress on that, but there's a chance that that could come through. And a lot of it depends on the direction of this big Ukrainian counteroffensive we're seeing in the east and the south. You know, the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant sits right in the middle of that. So if the Ukrainians continue to regain ground there, there is a chance that they could take back the plant.

BRUMFIEL: Well, Kat, thank you so much for your reporting and for calling us from Ukraine. Stay safe out there, OK?

LONSDORF: Yeah, you're welcome, Geoff. Thanks.

BRUMFIEL: This episode was produced by Berly McCoy, edited by Gabriel Spitzer and fact-checked by Margaret Cirino. The audio engineer was Josh Newell. And before we head out, a quick shoutout out to our SHORT WAVE Plus listeners. We appreciate you. And thank you for being a subscriber. SHORT WAVE Plus helps support our show. And if you're a regular listener, we'd love for you to join so you can enjoy the show without sponsor interruptions. Find out more at plus.npr.org/shortwave. I'm Geoff Brumfiel. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

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