Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant temporarily cut off from power grid

The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in the middle of the fighting in Ukraine was temporarily knocked offline Thursday because of fire damage to a transmission line, causing a blackout across the region and heightening fears of a catastrophe in a country still haunted by the Chernobyl disaster.

Fire damage to transmission line raised fears of catastrophe

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The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in the middle of the fighting in Ukraine was temporarily knocked offline Thursday because of fire damage to a transmission line, causing a blackout across the region and heightening fears of a catastrophe in a country still haunted by the Chernobyl disaster.

The complex, Europe's largest nuclear plant, has been occupied by Russian forces and run by Ukrainian workers since the early days of the six-month-old war. Ukraine alleges Russia is essentially holding the plant hostage, storing weapons there and launching attacks from around it, while Moscow accuses Ukraine of recklessly firing on the facility.

On Thursday, the plant was cut off from the electrical grid after fires damaged the last operating regular transmission line, according to Ukraine's nuclear power agency, Energoatom. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy blamed Russian shelling and said the plant's emergency backup diesel generators had to be activated to supply power needed to run the plant.

An aerial view of smoke rising from the ground.
Overview of Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and fires, in Enerhodar, Ukraine on Aug. 24 (European Union/Copernicus Sentinel-2 imagery/Reuters)

"Russia has put Ukraine and all Europeans one step away from a radiation disaster," Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address.

Zaporizhzhia's Russian-installed regional governor, Yevgeny Balitsky, blamed the transmission-line damage on a Ukrainian attack.

It was not immediately clear whether the damaged line carried outgoing or incoming power, needed for the reactors' vital cooling systems. A backup line supplying electricity from another plant remained in place, Energoatom said.

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said further international pressure is needed to get Russia to withdraw from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and that failure to do so could lead to a nuclear catastrophe.

But Zelenskyy's mention of the emergency generators being activated raised questions of whether the cooling systems were endangered. A loss of cooling could cause a nuclear meltdown.

As a result of the transmission-line damage, the two reactors still in use out of the plant's six went offline, Balitsky said, but one was quickly restored, as was electricity to the region.

Emergency systems activated

Many nuclear plants are designed to automatically shut down or at least reduce reactor output in the event of a loss of outgoing transmission lines. The UN's International Atomic Agency said Ukraine informed it that the reactors' emergency protection systems were triggered, and all safety systems remained operational.

The three regular transmission lines at the plant are out of service because of previous war damage.

"Anybody who understands nuclear safety issues has been trembling for the last six months," Mycle Schneider, a consultant and co-ordinator of the World Nuclear Industry Status Report, said before the latest incident.

The plant, shown on Aug. 22, is under Russian control but being operated by Ukrainian staff. Kyiv and Moscow have accused each other of shelling the plant — the largest in Europe. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

Ukraine cannot simply shut down its nuclear plants during the war because it is heavily reliant on them. Its 15 reactors at four stations provide about half of its electricity. Still, an armed conflict near a working atomic plant is troubling for many experts and people living nearby.

That fear is palpable just across the Dnieper River in Nikopol, where residents have been under nearly constant Russian shelling since July 12, with eight people killed, 850 buildings damaged and over half the population of 100,000 fleeing the city.

While no civilian nuclear plant is designed for a wartime situation, Zaporizhzhia's reactors are protected by reinforced concrete containment domes that could withstand an errant shell, experts say.

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IAEA aims to send team to plant

The more immediate concern is that a disruption in the electrical supply could knock out cooling systems essential for the reactors' safe operation. Emergency diesel generators can be unreliable.

The pools where spent fuel rods are kept while they cool are also vulnerable to shelling, which could scatter radioactive material.

Kyiv told the IAEA that shelling earlier this week damaged transformers at a nearby conventional power plant, disrupting the supplies of electricity to the Zaporizhzhia plant for several hours.

The atomic agency's head, Rafael Mariano Grossi, said Thursday he hopes to send a team to the plant within days.

Negotiations over how the team would access the plant are complicated but advancing, he said on France-24 television.

"Kyiv accepts it. Moscow accepts it. So we need to go there," Grossi said.

At a UN Security Council meeting Tuesday, UN political chief Rosemary DiCarlo urged the withdrawal of all troops and military equipment from the plant and an agreement on a demilitarized zone around it.

LISTEN | Fears of catastrophe at nuclear plant:
In Ukraine, a nuclear plant under Russian occupation has the international community warning of potential catastrophe. Guest host Michelle Shephard discusses the risks with Philip Crowther, international affiliate correspondent for the Associated Press; and Mariana Budjeryn, a Ukrainian nuclear expert at Harvard's Belfer Center.

With files from Reuters