The Current

Safety at Ukraine nuclear plant not designed with 'full-scale war in mind': expert

Nuclear expert Mariana Budjeryn discusses the risks posed by shelling near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station, a Ukrainian facility under Russian control.

Ukraine and Russia blame each other for shelling near Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant

A Russian serviceman stands guard in an area of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station in southeastern Ukraine on May 1. The facility has been under Russian control since March. (The Associated Press)

Read Story Transcript

Recent shelling near a Ukrainian nuclear power plant — that is now under Russian control — is unprecedented and extremely concerning, according to one nuclear expert.

"This has never happened before that such a large civilian nuclear facility would be trapped in the middle of a full-scale war," said Mariana Budjeryn, who has researched nuclear power in Ukraine and is a senior research associate at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center in Cambridge, Mass.

Russia has controlled the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station since March, but it is still run by Ukrainian workers. Both countries blamed the other for shelling near the plant over the weekend, prompting calls for inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to be given access to monitor the station.

WATCH | Europe's largest nuclear reactor comes under fire: 

Shelling at Ukraine nuclear plant raises fears over health, environmental threats

1 year ago
Duration 1:56
The UN is urging inspectors with the International Atomic Agency to be allowed access to Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant to check for radiation leaks after the site came under fire again over the weekend.

Budjeryn spoke to The Current's guest host Michelle Shephard about the station, and the risks. Here is part of their conversation.

What protections do we know that are in place to protect the worst from happening there at the plant?

Nuclear facilities are highly complex, you know, really well-protected facilities. There has been a lot of attention paid, especially in the last few decades after Chernobyl and after the accident in Japan at Fukushima Daiichi, to the safety and security of these facilities. So there are rigorous safety and security protocols and systems in place. For instance, active reactor cores are protected by very robust, reinforced concrete structures, [and] containment chambers. So should there be a release of radioactivity inside the reactor core … theoretically, that containment chamber should prevent the release into the atmosphere, beyond the reactor. Those structures are also designed to withstand some level of outside impact, [such as] shelling.

But again, Michelle, none of these safety and security systems were designed with a full-scale war in mind. So we really don't know for sure. We can make calculations on the back of the envelope at this point and say, all right, you know, if sustained shelling happens for such and such time, then maybe the structure will withstand.

We're hearing these reports of Ukrainian staff working under extreme circumstances, even some reports saying they're being held at gunpoint. What do we know about that and how does that impact the safety?

We have been focusing so much on the technological side of things in any sort of power plant, but there's a whole human dimension. Nuclear power plants are staffed with highly qualified people. They're not really easily replaceable; they have to be there. They're specialists.

They're working under extreme duress; they're working under military occupation, under, you know, military people, generals, that it is safe to assume know very little about the safe operation of a nuclear power plant. So I can imagine they would have to justify their actions. They have to walk on eggshells around the military folk under constant threat of terror.

WATCH | Ukrainian envoy warns of grave dangers at nuclear power complex 

Ukrainian envoy warns of grave dangers at nuclear power complex

1 year ago
Duration 1:21
The Ukrainian ambassador to international organizations described the Russian shelling of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and the continuing danger at the complex, which is occupied by Russians. Russia says Ukraine shelled the plant.

And the satellite city … is also occupied. Their families, their kids are living under occupation. 

A big part of a safe and secure operation of a nuclear facility is the human part, right? It's being able to complete these stringent safety protocols and this very demanding job in a healthy, normal environment. And this is so far not possible.

Another dimension of this is should anything happen — maybe not a terrible catastrophe, but some kind of mishap at a plant — there really is no way to get relief aid, to get firefighters, to get any kind of way to mitigate the consequences of it. And that could be a multiplier for the harm that is done by any kind of accident at the nuclear power plant.

What do you think the international response should be to this? 

Well, the [International Atomic Energy Agency] has been very active. In particular, the Director General [Rafael Mariano] Grossi has been very, very active, and they're trying to get that mission to the Zaporizhzhia power plant. But I think ultimately what we're finding out, Michelle, is that the system of global nuclear governance is really not up to this task. We don't have a very good way of managing the situation.

One way would be what Ukraine is demanding, is to deploy some kind of peacekeeping force that could demilitarize and keep this area secure. That, of course, would depend on the decision of the UN Security Council, at which Russia wields a veto power. So there's a dead end there. The short answer is there is no good way to manage the situation. We have to do our best with what we have and hope to avoid a disaster.

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Randy Potash and Shyloe Fagan. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now