Zaporizhzhia: On the Brink

The threat of a nuclear disaster in Ukraine intensifies with each day.  At Zaporizhzhia, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, six nuclear reactors sit side by side.  The nukes are smack in the midst of heavy fighting in the southeast of Ukraine.  Since early August, the plant site has been shelled over a dozen times, with one attack in the immediate area of one of the nukes.

Charges and counter-charges fly.  Both Ukraine and Russia allege that the other country is responsible for the attacks.

The head of the IAEA – the International Atomic Energy Agency – Rafael Mariano Grossi warns the situation at Zaporizhzhia is “very alarming.”  Antonio Gutierrez, Secretary-General of the United Nations, who recently visited Ukraine, said an attack on the plant would be “suicidal.”  He calls for the formation of a demilitarized zone around the six reactors.  And Ukraine president, Vladimir Zelensky, decries Russia’s “nuclear terrorism” at the site.

Thus far, Russia has firmly said nyet to any plan for a demilitarized zone around the plant.  In fact, Russia currently plans to disconnect the plants from the Ukraine power grid and switch them over to the Crimean grid.  Meanwhile, it’s unclear how much political capital President Biden or Secretary of State Anthony Blinken will expend on this issue.  Why?

There are three major barriers to mobilizing outrage in the US and around the world about the Zaporizhzhia plant.

First, due to the threat of global warming, there is now substantial pro-nuclear sentiment in the US and world environmental community.  The recently passed Inflation Reduction Act reflects that sentiment with its provision for $30 billion in tax-credits to bail-out the nuclear industry.  The hand-out will go to repair and finance aging and, in the opinion of many nuclear safety experts, extremely unsafe reactors.  Clearly, those who favor nuclear power are reluctant to focus on the hazards of existing nukes, whether they be in the US, UK or Ukraine.

Secondly, the severe energy crunch in Europe caused by Russia’s cutting off of natural gas exports to Germany, Finland and other countries has caused a seismic shift in how people view nuclear power.  Two short years ago, Germany, was on a path to shut down all its nukes.  Now, the intention is to keep three large nuclear power plants on-line for the indefinite future.  Meanwhile Finland is rushing to complete new nukes and Macron is pushing the idea of at least six new reactors in France.  Clearly, for many, the energy crunch makes it hard to criticize nukes.

And lastly, for years, the nuclear power industry and its fans have downplayed one of the most dangerous aspects of nuclear power generation: irradiated fuel pools.  The industry uses the misleading word “spent” to describe the tons of highly toxic fuel that sit in cooling pools at almost every nuclear reactor in the world.  (In some countries the fuel has been removed to underground caverns but the norm is to store the irradiated fuel at reactors.)

“Spent” implies wasted, used-up, harmless.  The direct opposite is the case.  Spent or irradiated fuel is packed with dangerous radioactive elements, such as cesium-127 and strontium-90.  These poisons have built up to such a degree that the fuel no longer fissions efficiently.  So the fuel must be removed from the reactor core and stored in deep water pools until it can be safely moved to dry cask storage.  If one of these pools ceases to receive cooling water (as in an emergency blackout caused by a military strike), then there is the danger of a loss of coolant followed by a hydrogen explosion.

At Zaporizhzhia there is a particularly large inventory of irradiated fuel with 2000 irradiated fuel assemblies in pools, and over 3000 fuel assemblies in dry casks.  Either form of storage is vulnerable to missile attacks.

If there is an accident, a nuclear cloud could go anywhere.  It might move west across Ukraine towards Romania, Poland, Hungary, and Italy, north across Ukraine and Belarus towards Germany or Finland, or east towards Russia and Turkey.  (During the Chernobyl disaster the wind shifted directions repeatedly.)

Whichever way the wind is blowing, a nuclear crisis at Zaporizhzhia would be an unmitigated disaster.  Heavily populated areas throughout Europe, Russia and Turkey would be at risk.  And Ukraine’s vast grain-producing terrain, key to helping relieve food insecurity in a huge swath of Africa and the Middle East, could become contaminated.

The creation of a demilitarized zone around the six reactors at Zaporizhzhia is an essential first step.  It’s  not a perfect solution.  One risk:  rogue elements in either Ukraine or Russia might not recognize such a zone.  Another gamble? Demilitarized zone or not, the electric grid could go down, putting the nuclear power plants on a countdown towards a major accident.  Still, the current threat of a nuclear disaster caused by shelling and artillery would be alleviated.

It’s time for the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron, the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, Russian President, Vladimir Putin and President Joe Biden to get on board to address this crucial issue.

A catastrophe at Zaporizhzhia must be avoided at all costs.

Mina Hamilton served on the Board of Directors of Greenpeace, USA. She was a co-founder and co-director of the Sierra Club Radioactive Waste Campaign and President of the Delaware Valley Conservation Association. Her writing has appeared in Mother Jones magazine, the Progressive, the Nation and is a frequent contributor to She lives in Western Massachusetts. Read other articles by Mina.