Nuclear power plants as targets of war

The infamous Chernobyl power plant, where the worst nuclear accident of the 20and century occurred in 1986, Wednesday lost access to electricity allowing it the cooling of radioactive toxic waste and the transmission of data from control systems. Here is what to remember from this event which comes a few days after the most powerful of the five nuclear power plants in Ukraine, Zaporijjia, fell into the hands of the Russian invader.

• Read also: What we know about the situation in Chernobyl, deprived of electricity

• Read also: Chernobyl cut off from the electricity grid, “no major impact on security”

• Read also: Russian invasion of Ukraine: two weeks that shook the world

Ukrainian nuclear power plant destroyed after 1986 disaster

Archival photo

Ukrainian nuclear power plant destroyed after 1986 disaster

1. What happened Wednesday at Chernobyl?

The electricity supply to the Chernobyl nuclear site was disconnected from the electricity grid on Wednesday “due to the military actions of the Russian occupier”, according to Ukrenergo, the national energy company. Emergency diesel generators have taken over and “will be able to provide vital site activity for up to 48 hours,” a Ukrainian source reported. And after? “The stored fuel cooling systems will stop,” warned Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. Telephone communications are also interrupted on the site, where more than 200 technicians and guards have been blocked since February 24. They now operate under Russian command.

2. Should we be afraid of what will happen after 48 hours?

According to Guy Marleau, professor of engineering physics at the École polytechnique de Montréal, who taught nuclear engineering for 30 years, the risk of disaster following this breakdown is minimal. “The plant ceased operations in 2000 and the uranium that is used to generate electricity loses most of its potency after 10 years. We can think that the residues are still hot but not enough to cause explosions or radioactive leaks, ”he explains. Same story from the side of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA): ” [On] does not see a major security impact. The thermal load of the swimming pool and the volume of the cooling water are sufficient to ensure efficient heat removal without electricity,” according to AFP.

3. The most powerful of the five nuclear power plants in Ukraine, Zaporijjia, in the south of the country – the equivalent in megawatts of LG2, in Quebec – fell into the hands of the invader on Saturday. Can it cause a nuclear catastrophe?

The threat to the population is real following the attack on Zaporijjia, according to Guy Marleau. “If the fire in the administrative buildings had spread to the reactors, it could have been very serious,” he says, referring to the Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011) disasters, which released deadly radiation into the surrounding communities. He adds that the occupation of the enemy can have effects on the activity of the power station. “The Russians are familiar with this type of reactor, but it is the Ukrainians who have ensured its smooth operation for a long time.” One operator cannot be replaced by another. The latter, the equivalent of the captain of a boat, has tailor-made training to properly manage his power plant. “Assuming that the instructions on the components are in Ukrainian, Russians may not be able to understand them,” he explains.

4. Why attack power plants?

By attacking a major power station during a time of war – a historic first – the Russian army has endangered the civilian population, deplores Michel Fortmann, author of Return of nuclear risk (PUM, 2019). He believes that this intervention was a strategic error. For Guy Marleau, it was downright “imbecile”, given the risks for the population. “It’s a dark day for the civilian use of nuclear energy,” he says. In an interview with the German newspaper Die Zeit On Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky lamented the nuclear threat from his opponent Vladimir Putin, calling his approach a bluff. “You [Poutine] use the nuclear threat only when nothing else works,” he said.

5. Are there other plants involved?

Ukraine has three other plants further away from major centers – Rivne, Khmelnitsky and South Ukraine – but they are smaller in size, around 3,000 megawatts (MG). By comparison with this, Zaporijjia produces 6000, slightly more than LG2 (5600 MW). At full throttle, Chernobyl was about the same.

6. Are neighboring countries supplied by nuclear power plants?

In addition to Romania, which has two power plants and is preparing to build two more, Belarus, Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovakia are home to nuclear power plants. The Baltic countries (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia) do not have power plants, but they store radioactive waste which could constitute a danger in the event of an attack.

– With AFP

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