The Daily Telegraph

Nuclear disaster feared after Russian shelling

Nuclear plant ‘on brink of disaster’ after fire leaves it relying on emergency power to cool reactors

- By Roland Oliphant and Sergio Olmos in Kyiv

Europe’s largest nuclear plant was on emergency back-up power to cool its reactors last night after Russian shelling cut it off from the Ukrainian grid for the second time in less than a month. German Galushchen­ko, Ukraine’s energy minister, said the world was “again on the brink of nuclear disaster” and safety experts warned of a “slow moving train wreck” that could end in a Fukushima-style meltdown. The plant’s last power line was cut yesterday.

EUROPE’S largest nuclear plant was last night relying on emergency backup power to cool its reactors after shelling cut it off from the Ukrainian grid for the second time in less than a month.

German Galushchen­ko, Ukraine’s energy minister, said the world was “once again on the brink of nuclear disaster” and safety experts warned of a “slow moving train wreck” that could end in a Fukushima-style meltdown.

“The de-occupation of the ZNPP and the creation of a demilitari­sed zone around it is the only way to ensure nuclear safety,” he said.

Energoatom, the Ukrainian nuclear operator, said that the last power line connecting the Zaporizhzh­ia nuclear power plant was cut yesterday when Russian shelling started a fire in a nearby forest.

“Consequent­ly, the sixth power unit was unloaded and disconnect­ed from the grid and is now powering the ZNPP itself,” it said yesterday.

The IAEA nuclear watchdog confirmed late last night that the backup power line had been disconnect­ed deliberate­ly to extinguish a fire, but it was not damaged.

“The ZNPP continues to receive the electricit­y it needs for safety from its sole operating reactor,” the IAEA said in a statement.

Sources inside the nuclear plant described a chaotic scramble to restore connection­s and said it was coming very close to switching to emergency diesel generators.

“The sixth block is working to its limit. We are waiting for the line to be restored. The situation here right now is very tough,” one worker said.

“It can only work off its own resources for two hours. This is not sustainabl­e. If the fire is not put out and the line isn’t restored, then the diesel generator will kick in. But even that can only work for 72 hours max.”

“We’ve got 30 to 40 minutes left at best.”

The source was not able to immediatel­y confirm if the diesel generators were used last night.

The renewed nuclear safety crisis came as the Kremlin hinted it would not restore gas flows to Europe to previous levels unless sanctions were lifted.

Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesman, said problems with pumping gas through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline occurred “because of the sanctions”.

Russia stopped pumping gas through the pipeline on Friday after G7 finance ministers agreed to put a price cap on Russian oil exports.

The Zaporizhzh­ia nuclear plant was seized by Russia early in its invasion of Ukraine.

Kyiv and Moscow have blamed one another for a recent spate of shelling there and traded accusation­s of trying to use the prospect of a Fukushima or Chernobyl-style disaster as blackmail.

On Aug 25 a fire caused by shelling cut it off from Ukraine’s grid for the first time since it was built in the 1980s.

Severing power lines is dangerous because nuclear power stations rely on external power for cooling and other needs in case their reactors themselves have to be shut down.

Reactors can provide power for their own cooling, but have to be switched to a dangerousl­y low power output if they cannot transmit electricit­y to the grid. A disconnect­ion lasting more than a few hours means resorting to diesel generators. If the emergency generators fail, workers would have to resort to emergency measures including using diesel or petrol powered pumps to push cool water into the reactors.

If those measures failed, they would have hours or at most days before reactors and spent fuel pools began to warm up, ultimately leading to a meltdown.

Edwin Lyman, the director of Nuclear Power Safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, described the crisis as a “slow moving train wreck or plane crash”.

“Everyone could see what was happening and no one has been able to stop it. And the danger seems to be accelerati­ng now,” he said. “If there is not a concerted internatio­nal effort to get a ceasefire to restore the power lines it is only a matter of time before some crisis happens. Then it will be up to the operators to prevent it from turning into a Fukushima.”

A 14-strong IAEA team visited the plant last week to deter further fighting and secure the facility. Four of six IAEA staff who remained on site left yesterday, leaving two inspectors to monitor the facility before the shutdown.

It came as Germany said it would keep two of its three remaining nuclear power plants on reserve in the event they are needed to make up for a shortfall in electricit­y generation this winter, reversing a long-planned shutdown of the facilities.

European gas prices yesterday surged, stocks slid and the euro sank after Russia halted gas flows via a major pipeline, sending another shockwave through economies still struggling to recover from the pandemic.

EU government­s are pushing through multi-billion euro packages to prevent utilities buckling under a liquidity squeeze and to protect households from soaring energy bills.

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