Damaged Chernobyl nuclear plant, occupied by Russia, loses outside power
Ukrainian government officials said Wednesday that damage by the Russian military had “disconnected” the Chernobyl nuclear power plant from outside electricity, making the site of the worst nuclear accident in history dependent on electricity from diesel generators and backup supplies.
The International Atomic Energy Agency said on Wednesday there was no need for immediate alarm over the state of the dormant plant, where workers have protected nuclear waste since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. But officials said the situation around the site remains a source of serious concern. ,
Russian troops have occupied the facility since the early days of the invasion last month. IAEA, A United Nations Agency, Said that the loss of electricity violated a “major safety pillar”, but added that there was “no significant impact on safety” at this time because of the amount of water around cold ponds and radioactive waste to keep nuclear material under control. was sufficient, even without sustained power to the plant. One reason for this is that the fuel assemblies used are old and not as dangerous as they were before.
The American Nuclear Society, a professional group, agreed. “The loss of power is a serious matter but does not pose any threat to the public,” it said in a statement.
Russia’s energy ministry said on Wednesday that Belarus, which borders the Chernobyl facility, is working to restore power from its grid.
Nevertheless, there were clearly deep concerns in the nuclear community about the long-term fate of the facility, which is staffed by several thousand workers who oversee the plant and its fuel and waste storage, as well as other nuclear plants in Ukraine. .
Last week’s shelling of a separate, operating nuclear power facility engulfed a training building, and prompted a call from President Biden to Ukraine’s beleaguered President Volodymyr Zelensky. Mr Biden later condemned the military action at the Zaporizhzhya nuclear complex in southern Ukraine as “reckless”.
Chernobyl, which is in an “excluded zone” north of Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, was right on the offensive path of Russian forces flowing south from Belarus. There have been reports from the Ukrainian government – which has called for a ceasefire around the plant to allow inspectors and other workers inside – that the 200 or so workers who were on duty at the time of the invasion are still . And working in security. He hasn’t been kicked out for almost two weeks.
“I am concerned about the difficult and stressful situation facing employees at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and the potential risks to nuclear safety,” IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi said in a statement on Tuesday.
Earlier on Wednesday, Ukraine’s nuclear regulator said backup generators had fuel to operate for 48 hours, and painted a grim picture of what could happen if the plant remained off the power grid for longer than that. . Less serious statements from the IAEA followed, and some other experts generally downplayed the risks.
A former long-time worker at the plant, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of his safety, said that apart from diesel generators, the protection and monitoring system is powered by batteries and other backup means.
The IAEA said it had lost communication with its sensors at the plant. This may result in a loss of electrical power. While this poses no immediate threat, it means there would be no comprehensive way to detect the rise in radiation levels or quickly determine where it was coming from. The former employee said that, as of Wednesday, radiation monitoring could only be done using portable equipment such as a Geiger counter.
He also said that the workers were facing difficult conditions due to loss of power. With temperatures well below freezing, there is no way to heat workplaces, he said, and provide hot meals to employees, who have been working without a break since Russian troops arrived. Replacement teams cannot reach the site due to fighting, and some transport routes are blocked due to damaged bridges.
The most dangerous waste is found in two places in Chernobyl.
Chernobyl was once home to four operating reactors. Last closed in 2000.
As is common in the nuclear power industry, used fuel from all four reactors is stored in pools of water, which radioactively dissipate the heat generated as the fuel decays. When fuel is removed from the reactor, there is a lot of decay and thus a lot of heat, so the plants need power to drive pumps to circulate the storage water.
The IAEA has said that the fuel assemblies used at Chernobyl – there are more than 20,000 of them – are too old and so rotten they don’t need circulating pumps to keep them safe.
“The heat load of the spent fuel storage pool and the amount of cooling water contained in the pool are sufficient to maintain effective heat removal without the need for an electricity supply,” the agency said.
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The second main source of nuclear waste is the ruins of the reactor which was destroyed in the 1986 accident. An estimated 200 tons of fuel remain there in a slag-like mixture with molten concrete, sand and chemicals thrown at the reactor during the disaster. This mixture is found in all the remains of the reactor. Some parts of it are completely inaccessible and have been studied only by boring them.
A functioning reactor requires pumps that circulate water around the core, keeping it cool and controlling the nuclear reaction to avoid a meltdown. There is no cooling water in the disassembled, disorganized remains of the reactor, so the loss of electricity will have no effect on them.
But in recent years there have been incidents in which nuclear reactions have spontaneously started in pockets of these fuel-containing materials, leading to increased radiation levels. Without monitoring — humidity other than radiation levels — workers wouldn’t know if a new event was occurring.
Since 2017, the dismantled reactor has been covered by a large arched structure, intended to confine waste and protect against any release of radiation. The structure is also meant to allow for long-term storage of waste removal work.
The former employee said the ventilation system in the arched structure that sheltered the ruins had already stopped working. Those systems help control humidity levels in the building, which can affect the fuel that lives there.
The facility was granted an operating license by the Ukrainian authorities last year, so that work has just begun, and will take decades to complete. There are many large cranes and other specialized equipment to allow employees to work safely. Without power, most if not all work could not proceed.
The capture of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear complex also remains a matter of concern to international authorities. Mr Grossi told IAEA officials in Vienna on Tuesday that the plant was controlled by the Russian military.
“It’s not a safe way to run a nuclear power plant,” he said. “Nor is it safe or sustainable to have internal and external communications intercepted and cut off.”
Ukraine’s energy minister, Herman Galushchenko, said in a video message this week that about 500 Russian troops were in control of the complex, and had carried 50 pieces of heavy artillery to defend the site.
He said the plant’s workers were “physically and psychologically exhausted” and that the Russian military was taking them hostage, a claim that was impossible to verify immediately. Efforts to reach employees at the plant by phone and email have been unsuccessful.
Mark Santora, William J. broad And Ivan Nechepurenko Contributed to reporting.
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