Ukraine has raised the alarm over the impact of Russia’s invasion on nuclear facilities after fighting near Chernobyl and concern over the way sites are being run.
Fighting around Chernobyl caused a power outage on Wednesday, sparking concerns about spent nuclear fuel assemblies stored at the decommissioned facility — the site of the world’s worst nuclear power plant disaster in 1986.
The International Atomic Energy Agency said there was no immediate safety threat from the loss of power but nuclear officials and scientists have said they are worried about the state of the plant’s crew, who have been on site since shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine two weeks ago.
Ukrainian officials demanded a ceasefire in the area and raised separate concerns over the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, Europe’s largest, near the south-eastern city of Enerhodar. Staff have been held at the plant since it was taken over by invading Russian forces on Friday.
German Galushchenko, Ukraine’s energy minister, told the Financial Times that staff at Zaporizhzhia were being held “hostage” by Russian and Chechen troops for a fifth day running.
“They hold them like hostages there,” Galushchenko said in an interview “These are the people responsible for nuclear security.” Ukraine has five nuclear facilities.
In Chernobyl, a power line serving the plant was hit during fighting on Wednesday, Ukrainian officials said. Ukrainian and Russian claims about military activity cannot be independently verified.
Ukrenergo, Ukraine’s state power transmission company, announced an outage after 11am on Wednesday, and said emergency diesel generators had been switched on, which were enough to maintain power for 48 hours. About 20,000 spent nuclear fuel assemblies are stored at the site.
The IAEA said that it saw “no critical impact on safety” relating to the site’s spent fuel storage pool, and that there was enough cooling water at the facility for “effective heat removal” without the need for power supply.
Mark Wenman, a nuclear materials expert at Imperial College London, agreed with the agency’s assessment.
“The fuel storage ponds are also very deep and [it] would likely take weeks for the water to boil down even without cooling pumps active,” he said. “This should hopefully allow enough time for the power to the cooling systems to be restored.”
However, the IAEA’s director-general Rafael Mariano Grossi said this week that he was concerned about the “difficult and stressful situation” faced by about 210 technical personnel and guards at Chernobyl, who have been there since shortly after the Russian invasion on February 24.
Ukraine, which is trying to rally world support as it resists Russian invasion and bombardment, has raised the spectre of a broader nuclear threat to Europe from Russian forces’ capture of the decommissioned Chernobyl facility and of Zaporizhzhia.
“Putin’s barbaric war puts entire Europe in danger,” Dymytro Kuleba, foreign minister, said in a tweet. “He must stop it immediately!”
Asked about specific safety concerns, Galushchenko mentioned both the wellbeing of staff — who are normally rotated but had been kept at work for five days running — and unexploded bombs in the area.
“The first unit” (of six at the plant) “was hit and the problem now is that there are a lot of unexploded bombs on the perimeter of the station near the units,” Galushchenko said. “This is quite dangerous.”
The Ukrainian official said that there were about 50 heavy vehicles inside the station and 400 to 500 soldiers, split between Russians and fighters under the control of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.
Galushchenko said in a Facebook post overnight that staff at Zaporizhzhia were being pressed to take part in films that Russia planned to use for “propaganda” purposes. He said that a group of Russian journalists had been invited to the site.
“They want to show some stories for Russians, for internal use: film stories for Russian news,” he said. “Journalists came there for Russian channels.”