IAEA says major risk to nuclear safety at ZNPP
Vienna: “We are living on borrowed time when it comes to nuclear safety and security at the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP). Unless we take action to protect the plant, our luck will sooner or later run out, with potentially severe consequences for human health and the environment,” the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said today.
Underlining the crucial need for an agreement to protect Europe’s largest nuclear power plant (NPP) during the military conflict, IAEA experts present at the site continue to regularly hear shelling in the area, the Director General said. Near the plant itself, two landmine explosions occurred outside its perimeter fence, the first on 8 April, and another four days later, he added. It was not immediately clear what caused the blasts.
Grossi warned that the dependence of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) on a single still functioning power line for the external electricity it needs poses a major risk to nuclear safety and security amid signs of continued military activity in the southern region.
Pressing ahead with his efforts to strengthen nuclear safety and security at the ZNPP, he held talks with senior Russian officials including Rosatom Director General Alexey Likhachev in Kaliningrad last week. In late March, Director General Grossi met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in the city of Zaporizhzhya, ahead of his second visit to the ZNPP since the military conflict began. Crossing the frontline to and from the site on 29 March, the Director General could see for himself new indications of increased military activity compared with the situation during his previous visit on 1 September last year.
“At a time of growing speculation about military offensives and counter-offensives in the region, it is more important than ever to agree that a nuclear power plant should never be attacked, nor used to launch attacks from. I will not rest until this has been achieved,” he said.
For the past six weeks, the ZNPP has relied on a single 750 kilovolt (kV) power line for the required off-site electricity for reactor cooling and other essential nuclear safety and security functions. A back-up power 330 kV power line that was damaged on 1 March on the other side of the Dnipro River from the Russian-controlled ZNPP has still not been repaired, with Ukraine saying military action is preventing its experts from safely accessing the location situated in the territory it controls.
If the connection to the 750 kV line is also cut when there is no backup external electricity available, as happened most recently for 11 hours on 9 March, the ZNPP and its six reactors are forced to rely on emergency diesel generators for power – an unacceptable situation for nuclear safety and security, Director General Grossi said.
The nearby Zaporizhzhya Thermal Power Plant (ZTPP) operates the 330 kV open switchyard, through which back-up power has been provided to the ZNPP. The ZTPP also operates the pumping stations which feed cooling water from the Kakhovska Reservoir to the NPP. The Russian Federation reported last month that Rosatom was working to restore three 330 kV lines to the grid system in currently Russian-controlled territory. Rosatom has agreed to provide access for the IAEA team, which should take place next week.
At the plant itself, the operator is planning to transition in the coming days one of two reactors currently in a hot shutdown to a cold shutdown state, due to the warmer weather. The two reactors now in hot shutdown have been used to provide steam and heating to the ZNPP as well as heating to the nearby city of Enerhodar, where many plant personnel live. Reactor unit 5 will remain in hot shutdown to produce hot water and steam for the site. Also because of the spring weather, some of the nine mobile boilers that were installed to provide extra heating during the winter have been switched off, and the remaining will also be turned off soon.
In a separate development also related to the weather, the water level in the Kakhovska Reservoir – which provides water for reactor cooling – has gradually been increasing over the past two months due to melting snow. This came after the water level fell earlier in the winter months. The water level currently stands at 14.74 metres, around two metres above the minimum height required to be able to provide water to the ZNPP.
The staffing situation at ZNPP remains complex and challenging. Over one-third of the original staff have left the area, some of those remaining have signed work contracts under a newly formed Russian operating organization and some remain employed by Energoatom. A significant number of the latter are now on-call, with the rest – mainly key operating staff – still working at the ZNPP, under the direction of Russian-appointed management. In recognition of the staff shortages, operators from Russian NPPs have been receiving simulator and on-the-job training at the ZNPP. Once trained, they may be asked to come to work at ZNPP in case of staff shortages.
Director General Grossi has repeatedly expressed deep concern about the extremely difficult situation for ZNPP staff and their families, which could also affect nuclear safety and security.
Elsewhere in Ukraine, IAEA teams present at four other nuclear sites in the country are scheduled to carry out regular rotations this week. While the mission at the ZNPP was established in September 2022, a permanent IAEA presence at the Khmelnitsky, Rivne and South Ukraine NPPs, as well as the Chornobyl site, was set up in January this year.
At Chornobyl, the site staff who are required to live on-site in two-week shifts as a result of the conflict, are facing difficulties travelling to and from the nearby city of Slavutych, where most of them live. One bridge across the River Uzh has been damaged and a temporary bridge has been submerged due to spring flooding. Despite these difficulties, a planned April 8, 2023, rotation of work shifts was carried out successfully.
In late March and early April 2023, the IAEA arranged two additional deliveries of equipment to Ukraine, bringing the total to 15 so far during the conflict. With the two latest deliveries, the Ukrainian nuclear regulator SNRIU and its technical support organization, Energoatom’s Emergency and Technical Centre, the RADON facility in Kyiv and the State Enterprise VostokGOK received vehicles, personal protective equipment and IT equipment that were either donated from Israel or procured by the IAEA using extrabudgetary contributions from Australia and the United States of America.
– global bihari bureau