As power loss at Chornobyl’s power plant became a prominent media concern over the last few days, experts responded that their immediate concern wasn’t a nuclear meltdown, but rather Russia’s continuing control over Ukraine’s nuclear sites.
On Wednesday, Ukraine’s nuclear safety authority reported an outage on the high-voltage line that delivers power to the Chornobyl nuclear site to cool spent fuel from Ukraine’s reactors, encased there for safe long-term storage.
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Roughly a day later, The Washington Post reported that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was awaiting confirmation of Russia’s claims that Belarus forces had returned power to the facility. According to the Post, IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi considered the claim too “shaky” to confirm. Then, two hours later, Ukraine told the IAEA it had lost all communications with the Chornobyl facility, Al Jazeera reported.
Although the power loss due to the lost high-voltage line violated one of its seven key “safety pillars,” the IAEA said there was “no critical impact on safety,” reported World Nuclear News.
But time became a concern after Ukraine Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Russia’s ongoing attacks were preventing Ukrainian technicians from reaching the site for repairs, and that reserve diesel generators could power the plant for only 48 hours.
“After that, cooling systems of the storage facility for spent nuclear fuel will stop, making radiation leaks imminent,” Kuleba tweeted, after calling on “the international community to urgently demand Russia to cease fire and allow repair units to restore power.”
The central concern surrounding the power loss were spent nuclear fuel rods that have been cooling at the bottom of a 15-metre-deep pool of water with an active cooling system for the last 20 years. With the cooling system removed, they could heat up to 800°C and cause a fire in the facility, reported CP24, citing “a nuclear expert with knowledge of the plant’s system.”
“Power cuts to nuclear facilities are potentially very dangerous,” said the expert, who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
“The power cut could lead to water in the storage facility evaporating and exposure of spent fuel rods. They could eventually melt and that could lead to significant radiation releases.”
But the age of the fuel rods, and the depth of water that would need to boil away before that would happen, make that outcome “pretty unlikely,” Ed Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists told the Associated Press.
James Acton, co-director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, agreed. “The loss of power at Chornobyl is concerning but it is extremely unlikely that spent fuel pools there will empty because of evaporation (which could lead to fuel melting). This process is slow and mitigations should be straightforward,” he told the Guardian.
Even though a radiation leak may not be as imminent as Kuleba claimed, the IAEA said Russian control of Ukraine’s four nuclear power facilities is troubling, adding that the agency is more concerned for operating staff who are under armed guard, unable to change shifts, and given no leeway to make decisions free of undue pressure.
“I’m deeply concerned about the difficult and stressful situation facing staff at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant and the potential risks this entails for nuclear safety,” Grossi said in a statement. The IAEA also said it had lost the data feed from the Zaporizhzhia plant, the largest of Ukraine’s nuclear facilities.
“The remote transmission of data from IAEA safeguards equipment located at nuclear sites around the world is an important component of our safeguards implementation, in Ukraine and globally,” Grossi explained.
French government spokesperson Gabriel Attal said Russian President Vladimir Putin had “committed to guarantee the security and safety of nuclear sites in Ukraine” in his phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron on Sunday, AP reported.