Nuclear Fear Diverts World Attention From Russian Invasion
Updated: Aug 23, 2022
Artillery attacks around nuclear power plants? Not good. There certainly is some cause for alarm, but let’s ratchet down the high anxiety by placing these attacks within the larger perspective of nuclear safety and the Russo-Ukrainian War.
Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia power plant is one of the world’s ten largest nuclear facilities, and currently in the hands of Russian occupation forces. Its oldest reactor was commissioned in December 1985, making it newer by a year than my local nuclear plant, the relatively modern Columbia Generating Station.
Zaporizhzhia is also a pressurized water reactor facility, making it even safer than Columbia (and Columbia is very safe). That’s because pressurized reactors, unlike Columbia’s far more efficient boiling water reactor, have radioactive water flow loops that are physically separate (and therefore more confined) from the water flow that actually turns turbines to create electricity. Such separation would have greatly mitigated much of the Fukushima mess. Pressurized reactors also require less radioactive material in their cores.
Now consider the world’s worst pressurized or boiling water reactor disaster, which was Fukushima. Fukushima directly resulted in zero loss of life and localized (albeit extremely high-cost) environmental impact. (See “A lesson from Fukushima”). This, too, demands broader context: The associated earthquake and subsequent tsunami that hit Japan in 2011 killed more than 19,000 people.
Today, of course, we’re not talking about a tsunami, but instead a direct impact on a nuclear reactor from a high-explosive artillery shell. Well, it may have already happened. According to the Ukrainian government, during the early March fire-fight in which Russian forces seized control of Zaporizhzhia, a Russian shell struck the plant’s No. 1 reactor. The reactor’s thick concrete and steel containment carapace would have protected the reactor vessel from both the impact and subsequent explosion.
Of greater risk is the potential loss of power to the Zaporizhzhia facility. Shelling earlier this month (both sides blame each other) knocked out off-site power to the plant, requiring use of on-site back-up power. Loss of off and on-site power stops the flow of cooling water through the core, which directly led to the Fukushima disaster.
But even more distressing, according to the U.N. Security Council, should be the overall deteriorating working and, by extension, safety conditions at the plant under oppressive Russian management. There is nothing more detrimental to safety performance than poor morale. Fearing sabotage, Ukrainian officials report that Russians regularly detain and have even tortured plant workers. Some have gone missing.
Nuclear reactors are reasonably – very reasonably – safe from both natural disasters (read about U.S. post-9/11 and post-Fukushima protective measures) and direct impacts. The potentially weak link in the chain is the human performance factor. A well-trained, proficient and motivated workforce is necessary to optimally sustain plant safety systems. Given current conditions, this is the link at Zaporizhzhia that should have the world concerned.
As to the potential result of safety failure, we have Fukushima, in which no one died, as our historical reference point. (Fears of “another Chernobyl” are spread by ill-informed sources. Chernobyl was a technologically funky, operationally dangerous plant, bearing no resemblance to Western-style reactors like Zaporizhzhia. I’ll address Chernobyl in a future blog).
So, yes, we should all be concerned about the safety of those working in and around that nuclear plant. But similar to the immediate post-earthquake and tsunami situation in Japan, we should save our greatest anxieties for the overall safety and welfare of all those impacted these past six months by the Russian invasion of its southern neighbor. Slaughtering children and women by bombing schools and hospitals have caused more death and destruction than Zaporizhzhia could ever do, even in a full Fukushima-like melt down.
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