After Russian military forces occupied the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine last week, fears over the result of fighting and military action at the nuclear disaster site have been eclipsed by Russian shelling of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.
Russian and Ukrainian forces were engaged in a battle at the Zaporizhzhia plant in the early hours of Friday morning (March 4), with Russian shelling causing a fire at the plant captured on a YouTube livestream.
The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant fire has since been extinguished, according to Ukrainian authorities, but Russian military forces are now in full control of the nuclear power plant.
The repeated shelling of the plant, far larger than Chernobyl, led to warnings by Ukrainian officials that any explosion resulting from shelling could be “ten times bigger than Chernobyl” and spell the “end for Europe”.
No changes in radiation levels at Zaporizhzhia have been recorded so far and reports have stated that minimal damage to the nuclear plant’s reactor one should not impact the overall safety of the plant.
Here’s what Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant is, where it is in Ukraine and how big it is in comparison to Chernobyl.
What is the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant?
The Ukrainian nuclear power station, owned and operated by the state’s National Nuclear Energy Generating Company Energoatom, is the largest in Europe and one of the largest power plants in the world.
It is believed to account for roughly a fifth of Ukraine’s electricity generation, with the hydroelectric plant producing 19% of the country’s electricity in 2020.
Construction of the plants reactors first began in 1980, with Zaporizhzhia’s initial five reactors going online between 1985 and 1989.
Zaporizhzhia has six nuclear reactors and six cooling pools, with reactors 5 and 6 already in cool down as preparations are underway to cool down reactors 2 and 3 after Russian shelling of the plant on Friday morning, according to the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine (SNRIU).
A statement by SNRIU on Friday morning said that a fire had broken out after shelling of the plant began at approximately 1am in the country, with the number of deaths or casualties at the site as it was seized by Russian forces still unknown.
An update at 8am added that any nuclear threat is currently mitigated by the safety of the plant’s design and its cool down procedure, in line with the views of many experts of there being no current risk of nuclear disaster.
But the SNRIU also warned: "The loss of the possibility to cool down nuclear fuel will lead to significant radioactive releases into the environment.
“As a result, such an event may exceed all previous accidents at nuclear power plants, including the Chornobyl accident and the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
“It shall be reminded that in addition to six power units at the Zaporizhzhya NPP site, there is a spent nuclear fuel storage facility, damage of which due to shelling will also lead to radioactive releases.”
2,204 tons of spent fuel were recorded as in storage at the site in 2017, with 855tons inside the spent fuel pools and 1,349 tons in the dry storage facility.
Where is Zaporizhzhia in Ukraine?
Zaporizhzhia is located in the southeast of Ukraine on the shore of the Kakhovka Reservoir supplied by the Dnieper river.
It is roughly 225 kilometres northwest to the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol and 550km southeast from the capital of Kyiv.
It became a target for Russian shelling on Friday morning due to its considerable supply of energy to the rest of Ukraine, amid intensified attacks felt across more areas of Ukraine – with many of these aiming to curtail the country's access to the sea.
How big is the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant?
With six reactors in total, the Zaporizhzhia power plant is the largest in Europe and one of the ten largest nuclear power plants in the world.
Its net capacity of approximately 5,700 megawatts (MW) and gross capacity of 6,000MW puts it behind giant plants such as Japan’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant, with a capacity of almost 8,000MW, but well ahead of other sizeable plants such as Fukushima Daichii, Chernobyl and China’s Yangjiang and Hongyahne nuclear power plants.
The size of the plant and its production of electricity for Ukraine has led to warnings over its importance and vulnerability during the ongoing conflict.
Greenpeace International published a nuclear safety technical briefing on the Zaporizhzhia site on Wednesday which highlighted the plant as posing a “unique nuclear threat” amid resurgent armed conflict in the country.
Co-author of the report, Jan Vande Putte, said: “For the first time in history a major war is being waged in a country with multiple nuclear reactors and thousands of tons of highly radioactive spent fuel.
"The war in southern Ukraine around Zaporizhzhia puts them all at heightened risk of a severe accident.
"So long as this war continues the military threat to Ukraines nuclear plants will remain.
"This is one further reason, amongst so many, why Putin needs to immediately cease his war on Ukraine.”
What has been said about Russia’s attack on Zaporizhzhia?
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a speech on Friday that an explosion at the Zaporizhzhia plant that would be "the end for everyone. The end for Europe. The evacuation of Europe".
"Only urgent action by Europe can stop the Russian troops," he added.
"Do not allow the death of Europe from a catastrophe at a nuclear power station."
President Zelenskyy’s comments came as Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted his alarm at the situation unfolding at the Zaporizhzhia plant.
“Russian army is firing from all sides upon Zaporizhzhia NPP, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe,” wrote Kubela just after midnight UK time.
"Fire has already broke out.
"If it blows up, it will be 10 times larger than Chornobyl!
"Russians must IMMEDIATELY cease the fire, allow firefighters, establish a security zone!”
Rafael Mariano Grossi, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, also tweeted on Friday morning: “I'm deeply concerned with situation at #Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant.
"Spoke with #Ukraine PM Denys Shmygal; @IAEAorg's monitoring and in close contact with #Ukraine's nuclear regulator and operator.
"I appeal to parties to refrain from actions that can put NPPs in danger.”
Downing Street called the situation in Zaporizhzhia "gravely concerning".
Additional reporting by PA and AP