THE Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident in the erstwhile USSR in 1986 had sent shockwaves across the world and the current military conflict between Ukraine and Russia has once again brought the focus back on the prospects of an atomic catastrophe. The fire incident at Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhya in southeast Ukraine following shelling by Russian troops once again highlights the danger of nuclear tinderboxes in the warzone.
The fire broke out at the training unit of the Zaporizhzhia power plant and did not cause any damage to the nuclear reactors but a misguided bomb, missile or rocket can potentially result in another apocalypse in the region.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on early Friday morning claimed that an explosion in the Zaporizhzhia power plant would be 10 times bigger than the Chernobyl catastrophe. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy sounded the alarm bell too. “If there is an explosion, it is the end of Europe,” Bloomberg quoted him as saying.
The International Atomic Energy Agency(IAEA) also raised the alarm on the security of nuclear plants as Russian forces kept bombarding southern Ukraine.
How Intense Can The Nuclear Disaster Be?
The now-shuttered nuclear plant of the Chernobyl explosion then rendered a huge area inhabitable and still contains radioactive material. The area is officially called the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
The power plant at the industrial city of Zaporizhzhia is located in southeastern Ukraine and supplies an estimated 40 per cent of the country’s nuclear power.
Dr Sameer Patil, a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation (ORF), claimed that a nuclear disaster at Zaporizhzhia power plant can be much bigger than the 1986 Chernobyl tragedy as the latter had four reactors with much lower capacities compared to six large ones in the former. “Though the characterisation of ’10 times larger’ could also just be a way of drawing global attention to what is happening in Ukraine,” he cautioned.
He also added, “Zelenskyy’s claim of “end of Europe” could be somewhat exaggerated. But if there is a nuclear meltdown, countries in the vicinity of Ukraine will certainly face casualties, at least in hundreds, plus there will definitely be long-term consequences, particularly on resident’s health, those who escape the initial exposure to radiation.”
“In my opinion, India would not face any after effects,” stated the expert.
Ukraine has three more operational nuclear power plants in Rivne, Khmelnytsky and South Ukraine and a total of fifteen operable reactors.
Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia are under Russian control after intense fighting. But the power plants are civilian in nature and have never been a military asset.
“There are two important facts to consider here: firstly, the nuclear complex at Zaporizhzhia is for civil nuclear energy, not for any weapons use; and second, the reactor model is considerably more advanced than the Chernobyl reactor, which makes it less likely, even under conditions of the ongoing ground war between Russia and Ukraine, that it will lead to an explosion, nuclear meltdown or radioactive release. Nuclear tech experts have concurred on this latter point,” asserted foreign affairs expert and The Hindu Associate Editor Narainan Laxman.
“However, the capture of this reactor by Russian forces is symbolically important in this invasion, because it is the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, the ninth-largest in the world and capable of producing one-fifth of Ukraine’s electricity needs. Despite a brave fight by a significantly outnumbered and outgunned Ukrainian army and reserve forces, it is clear from news of the capture of the nuclear reactor at Zaporizhzhia that the march of Russia into their country is relentless and rapid.”
Giving a wider insight on the security measures that are required to prevent a nuclear meltdown, Dr Sameer Patil, explained, “Generally, reactors are the most highly secured component of the nuclear facility, and that shall be the case too with the Zaporizhzhia power plant. The reactors are designed to withstand most of the natural disasters like earthquakes and sabotage like arson. So in that sense, the reactor would be designed to prevent overheating and radiation leak – the essence of a nuclear meltdown.”
He added, “In my opinion, it was essential to get control over the fire at Zaporizhzhia power plant, as to ensure the required temperature levels around the core of the reactor. In addition, making sure that backup systems are operational. But looking at the current developments in Ukraine, I am sceptical whether such capacity exists.”