Skip to main content

Ukrainian operators remain at the helm of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, but Russian forces have seized control of the station – a situation the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency described Friday as a state of “normal abnormality.”

Only one of the six reactors at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station continues to generate electricity after two were disconnected in an emergency operation when the station was attacked overnight. The plant normally produces a fifth of Ukraine’s electricity.

The unprecedented military assault on an operational nuclear facility – which left three dead and two wounded, according to local authorities — has raised global alarm over the potential for a nuclear catastrophe. In Ukraine, it has stirred fury.

Follow live updates of the war in Ukraine

Russia relentlessly attacks cities throughout Ukraine, takes control of nuclear plant

“People of Ukraine! We survived the night that could have stopped the course of history – history of Ukraine, history of Europe,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video address Friday morning. He used the attack on Zaporizhzhia to repeat calls for further European intervention. Ukraine has demanded the enforcement of a no-fly zone, which European leaders have rejected for fear of engaging in direct conflict with Russia.

This image provided to The Globe shows damage to a training building located near the reactor complex at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station, on March 4.Handout

“Ukraine has 15 nuclear units. If there is an explosion, it is the end of everything. The end of Europe – this is the evacuation of Europe,” Mr. Zelensky said. “Only immediate European action can stop Russian troops.”

But regulators, experts and a manager at Zaporizhzhia said the plant, built between 1984 and 1995, has continued to operate in a way that poses little unusual risk. “The safety systems of the six reactors at the plant were not affected – at all,” said Rafael Grossi, the director-general of the atomic energy agency. “There has been no release of radioactive material.”

As Russian forces attacked the station overnight, a projectile struck a training building located several hundred metres from the reactor complex, sparking a fire. The flames were extinguished by sunrise, but a picture shared with The Globe and Mail shows extensive damage to the top three floors of the building.

Russian state media blamed Ukraine for setting the fire as a provocation, but the projectile came “from the Russian forces,” Mr. Grossi said. He offered to personally travel to Chernobyl, which has also fallen under Russian control, to find solutions to what he called a “very, very fragile, very unstable” situation.

The attack also damaged civil infrastructure in Enerhodar, the nearby community where many of the power plant’s 11,000 workers live. On Friday, their homes were going cold after a municipal heating system stopped working.

Inside Zaporizhzhia, meanwhile, technicians and engineers were able to do shift changes after some worked for 29 hours to maintain operations as the station came under attack. At about 1 a.m. Friday, when Enerhodar Mayor Dmytro Orlov warned on Telegram about “fierce fighting” at the approach to the power plant, Units 2 and 3 were taken out of service and placed into a cooldown procedure.

Such a procedure can be stressful, particularly for people working far beyond their normal hours, said Viacheslav Varvarov, a nuclear engineer who oversees reactor operations.

But “it is not an emergency from the point of view of nuclear safety,” he said. “It is carried out in strict compliance with operating instructions and technological regulations.”

Regulators and operators have reported no loss of electricity to the plant, which makes it a “normal shutdown,” said Karine Herviou, who is in charge of the nuclear safety division at the French Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety, where she is deputy director-general.

Shutdown of the nuclear reaction in a unit takes seconds, she said. But the evacuation of residual heat can take weeks and requires power to complete. “This is why they need to have a supply of water and a supply of electricity,” Ms. Herviou said. At Zaporizhzhia, each reactor is equipped with four diesel generators with sufficient fuel to provide backup electricity for seven to 10 days.

Upgrades made after the Fukushima disaster in Japan also make it possible to use mobile equipment to connect pumps or other electrical backup equipment if those generators are lost, Ms. Herviou said.

“There are several defence lines before having a risk of core melt in the plant.”

Such international assurances are at odds with the stark language employed by the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine, which issued a warning Friday morning that “the loss of the possibility to cool down nuclear fuel will lead to significant radioactive releases into the environment.”

Any such event “may exceed all previous accidents at nuclear power plants,” it said.

Such an event has not, however, taken place. Cooling operations remain functional at Zaporizhzhia, and the dire warning raised concern among industry observers.

“I have never seen a regulator exaggerate risks like that, but I understand why Ukraine is doing it,” said Jeremy Gordon, a nuclear energy communications consultant. “Ukrainian authorities have been deliberately exaggerating risks as a way to rally support and further demonize Russia.”

For those working to keep Zaporizhzhia operational, however, the bombardment of their place of work has created genuine fear.

Plant employees should be forced to think that the attacking forces “are hitting nuclear power units with tanks,” Mr. Varvarov said. “This is the 21st century, when the whole world has gone through Chernobyl and Fukushima. Every projectile, or even a shot, can be fatal.”

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.