The explosion of a nuclear reactor put Chernobyl on the map in 1986 for the worst reasons. It is still considered the most serious nuclear accident in history. The memories are vivid 37 years later and fears of a new nuclear accident are more pressing since Russia attacked Ukraine.
Ukraine has has 15 nuclear power plants, but it is Zaporizhzhia that is focusing attention. Despite appeals from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), there are daily reports of attacks in the region.
Interviewed by Euronews, a former head of the IAEA believes that we are more exposed to danger today than in 1986.
“This situation is in some ways worse, because it is an intentional, man-made attack, and it is very difficult to protect a nuclear power plant if munitions or missiles hit the wrong place,” says Olli Heinonen, scientific adviser on Non-Proliferation at the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies, and former deputy director-general of the IAEA.
However, the World Nuclear Association, which promotes nuclear energy and represents companies in the industry, is more optimistic.
The WNA’s communications director Jonathan Cobb’s version is that, “what happened in 1986 was mainly due to a weak safety culture at the Chernobyl plant”.
He adds: “It was not because they broke the rules. In fact, they had not been given rules to follow.” He says that as a result, the industry and regulators in the sector, “have learned their lesson”.
Zaporizhzhia at the centre of fears
Europe’s largest nuclear power plant was one of Russia’s first targets. On March 4 last year, eight days after the start of the invasion of Ukraine, Russian troops took control of the Zaporizhzhia facility. However, the plant continued to be operated by Ukrainian workers.
After months of insecurity, in September 2022, the last reactor was shut down. The plant entered another, less sensitive, but no less dangerous, phase of operation.
On March 29, 2023 Rafael Grossi, head of the IAEA, visited Zaporizhzhia’s nuclear power plant.
“In reality, the situation is deteriorating,” Heinonen warns. “If you read Mr. Grossi’s report last week, you see that only about a quarter of the maintenance staff is present in Zaporizhzhia . “A quarter is not enough, because nuclear power plants have a system of regular maintenance, regular inspections and safety inspections by the authorities. They fail to carry these out as planned, which means that the plant is deteriorating over time. There is a shortage of spare parts and all this together. I think we are heading in the wrong direction. And that can have unfortunate consequences that are unpredictable and can lead to the release of radioactivity.”
WNA has another reading. “Both sides claim to operate the plant, so you wouldn’t expect them to treat it as a military target,” says Jonathan Cobb. The association’s communications officer concedes that the situation should be viewed with “concern”. However, he stresses that “the site itself does not appear to have been deliberately targeted by the bombings”.
“These are bombings that are taking place around the plant and there have been one or two cases where a projectile has hit some parts of the site, not the reactors themselves and that can be considered a mistake,” he states.
Cobb considers that the risk is also reduced by the construction design.
“The reactors themselves are very robust. They have concrete walls one metre thick and steel cladding. So they are very sturdy buildings, with protection that is expected to be sufficient for these kinds of accidental impacts that are not deliberately directed.”