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Russian Objectives At Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant

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Approximate direction of travel of the shell, calculated using the direction of impact of the shell [bottom left]. Indicating the shell originated from a Russian controlled area.

Newsweek published my op-ed on the dangers at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP). The more I think about it, the more I become convinced that Russia captured the plant as part of the initial “three-day war” and with the collapse of that objective had to figure out what to do with it. They came up with two possibilities: Frighten Ukrainians and their arms suppliers with the prospect of a radiological accident, and take the power to Russia.

Those two objectives are in conflict, however. A radiological accident would contaminate the plant and at least require a long decontamination before power could be supplied to Russia.

Vladimir Putin began the war with regular threats of using nuclear weapons. Those threats failed to deter Ukraine and its supporters, so they have been replaced with threats of a nuclear accident at ZNPP. But that hasn’t deterred Ukraine, either.

If a radiological accident is the goal, the spent fuel pools would be the targets. They are in industrial buildings, rather than the concrete containment of the reactors. Instead, the targets seem mainly to be the power lines into the plant. Those lines supply power for circulating the cooling water that prevents a meltdown. As with any competent safety engineering, there are several of them, with backup options. Last week, the plant had to go on the last of those options: reactor power was used to run the coolant pumps.

But then shelling stopped, and external power has been restored.

The Russians and Ukrainians blame each other for the shelling, but it has seemed to me that the Russians have more of a motivation for doing it, namely raising the fear of a radiological accident. Now there is evidence that Russia is shelling Energodar, the town where the reactor staff reside.

Some military action has been reported east of ZNPP. It seems to me that the best way for Ukraine to retake the plant is to isolate it, but that doesn’t look like a military priority for now. Two IAEA inspectors are now stationed at the plant, so information coming from them will be more reliable. All the reactors are shut down, which is a safer situation than having them operating.

Activity at the plant will heat up again when Russia needs a distraction. The problem, even if none of this is designed to cause an accident, is that something could go wrong and make an accident happen anyway.

Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner

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