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Zaporizhzhia Followup


It looks like the immediate concern about a Russian-caused incident at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant is dying down.

We’ve had a number of scares of this kind throughout the war. It’s important to keep in mind the most likely scenarios, which I outlined earlier this week.

My conjecture on the last several alerts is that the Ukrainian government obtains intelligence that the Russians are planning an incident, whether inside the plant or an external attack. They then publicize that intelligence to pre-emptively lay the blame for anything that happens on Russia and to blunt Russia’s motives for action, as the United States used intelligence before the start of the war and during its early stages. It’s likely that’s what happened this time, and Russia decided not to act.

(I assume that any sabotage of the plant will be by the Russians, who control the plant and have shown willingness to this sort of destruction.)

There’s a problem with this use of propaganda. The claims of a cloud that would affect Europe can play to both Ukrainian and Russian benefit. The Ukrainians would like to convince Europe to send more weapons. The Russians would like to convince Europe that it too will be a smoking radioactive ruin if the war goes too far. Ambiguous propaganda is much less convincing for either side.

The possibility of that cloud remains small, much smaller than is implied by comparisons to Chernobyl or Fukushima, as I said. The Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a video which very nicely shows the parts of the plant and speaks of dreadful outcomes of poorly specified actions. Matt Bunn also waves at a dreadful outcome. I continue to consider the probability of these outcomes very low, and a cloud that could do the damage of the Chernobyl cloud at close to zero.

The reason is that generating such a cloud would require 1) significant knowledge of how nuclear plants operate, and 2) large quantities of specialized explosives and knowledge of how to use them. The engineering of the plant would have to be overcome by both operational sabotage and accurate placement of shaped charges. Russia has shown little to nothing of this capability throughout the war.

The age of the fuel and hence its thermal and radiological properties is an important variable. Here’s what the American Nuclear Society, which is monitoring that more carefully than I am, says.

I emphasize this part:

That’s the fuel in the reactors. The fuel in the cooling ponds and in dry storage is less dangerous.

We can only evaluate probabilities. Those probabilities rely on consideration of the paths to the various outcomes. It’s especially important to look at the probabilities of the most disastrous outcomes. And it’s worth considering the propaganda effect of one’s predictions.

I’ve closed the comments, and it looks like they’ve all been removed. Apologies to those who made serious (or semi-serious) comments, but the troll content was too much.

Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner

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