Russia’s invasion and sham referendums in Ukraine include one notable piece of plunder — Europe’s largest nuclear plant.
The seized Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant (ZNPP) has turned this month into war booty, with Russian President Vladimir Putin calling for its confiscation by Russia. While that would not be easy, especially in the middle of a war, nothing makes the eventual theft of the 6,000 megawatts of electricity produced by the plant’s six reactors impossible, suggested nuclear energy experts. At least right now.
“I don’t think there are any unsurmountable technical obstacles to Russia stealing the plant and its power,” said Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety with the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Russia seized the plant in an early March firefight, sparking months of fears of a reactor disaster at the site that culminated in the shutdown of its last working reactor — still requiring cooling — last month. Putin decreed earlier this month that the plant will be taken over by Russia, following sham referendums in seized portions of Ukraine that include the plant. Russian forces have also detained some of the facility’s top administrators.
Plant workers now face “unacceptable pressure” to sign contracts with the Russian state nuclear company, Rosatom, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi, and shelling on Monday once again cut an external cooling power line to the facility. Cooling power is needed to manage the decay heat of the plant’s shuttered reactors and spent fuel rods held in enclosed pools at the site.
“The plant has already been ‘stolen’ in the sense that the Russians have been militarily controlling the site since March,” said MIT nuclear engineer Jacopo Buongiorno. However, until September, it was providing energy to Ukraine through its connection to that country’s electric grid, which is separate from Russia’s. Switching the plant over to the Russian grid would be a herculean task, even in peacetime.
“The station has been modified substantially in the past 30 years, and therefore, while it’s nominally ‘Soviet technology’, the plant cannot be operated by the Russians,” said Buongiorno. “With proper training, the Russians might take over operation completely, but it may take years to do so.”
Grand theft nuclear
Regardless, Putin seems intent on trying. His October decree, and the subsequent creation of a new Russian power company to manage the plant, set off a round of corporate warfare in the middle of a real war. Ukraine called the decree a “null and void” criminal act, and its state nuclear operator, Energoatom, said it would continue to run the plant.
Russia meanwhile first kidnapped the plant’s director, deporting him after the IAEA protested, then abducted a deputy manager (who has not been released and who Energoatom claims faces torture). It is also coercing remaining workers to sign contracts with Rosatom or lose their jobs. Losing their jobs might make them eligible for forced enlistment in the Russian army. Russia has added more soldiers to the site, already used as an artillery park, in recent days, according to Ukrainian news reports.
Each of the six 1,000 megawatt reactors at the plant represents $5 billion in replacement costs apiece, said George Moore, scientist-in-residence at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. “We’re talking, my goodness, the grandest theft of all. He’s going after $30 billion worth of equipment.”
While the IAEA has protested the takeover, with Grossi calling for a demilitarized zone around the plant, Russia does not need its certification to run the facility, said Moore. The U.N. agency’s inspections of nuclear plants are required only of non-nuclear states, and Russia is the world’s second-oldest nuclear power. “Russia can say, ‘Too bad, it’s ours now. The fact that Ukraine needed IAEA safeguards at the plant doesn’t matter to us,’” said Moore. The need for IAEA inspectors, with two still on site at Zaporizhzhia and replacements slated for them, “has become a big political football,” he added.
In 2014, Russia seized a Ukrainian research reactor at Sevastopol in the takeover of Crimea, which led to similar calls for IAEA involvement. That reactor has since been shuttered. Andrey Baklitsky, a former Russian foreign ministry analyst now with the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, has suggested that might be the fate of the Zaporizhzhia facility.
“It will not be easy for Russia to steal the power from ZNPP,” said nuclear security expert John Carlson of the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation. Technical challenges come from both inside and outside.
For starters, the Ukrainian power grid that the plant supplied was synchronized to the European power grid in March — a “major undertaking,” said Carlson. “Normally it would have taken months but was achieved in a day or so.” If Rosatom wants to supply the Zaporizhzhia plant’s power to Russia and its newly claimed territories, it will have to re-synchronize its output with the Russian grid and isolate it from the Ukrainian grid. “This would be a complex operation,” said Carlson.
“If you want to talk about connecting the plant back to the Russian mainland, perhaps by the Crimean bridge that was blown up, that’s a multiyear task,” said Moore. It would require building new towers for new power lines, perhaps running through the Crimean bridge that was heavily damaged in a recent explosion. None of that looks easy or reasonable in the middle of a war.
Inside the plant’s fences, none of the reactors at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant are now producing power, aside from reactor No. 5, which is in a “hot shutdown state” to produce steam on-site, according to the IAEA. The No. 6 reactor, the last to produce electric power, was shut down in September and has been cooling for more than a month. That’s long enough to pass a critical point where it demands only low-pressure water flow to control temperatures, according to Buongiorno. The other four reactors are already in a cold shutdown state. Each one would have to be restarted, a careful, time-consuming exercise, to start generating electricity for Russia.
That might be difficult simply because parts and supplies have gone missing in the war. Laboratories and chemical facilities have been damaged by shelling. An IAEA report that followed Grossi’s inspection tour reported that delivering spare parts to the plant “was extremely difficult” and “possible only on a case-by-case basis in an unpredictable manner.” On Monday, a convoy with spare parts arrived at the plant, according to the IAEA. But it came from the city of Zaporizhzhia, which is under Ukraine’s control, some 37 miles from the plant on the other side of the war’s front lines.
An added technical challenge is that four of the plant’s reactors have switched to Westinghouse fuel rods instead of their original design’s Russian ones. That includes the No. 5 reactor in a hot shutdown. Switching back to the Russian rods — a necessity because of trade embargoes — would be another technical challenge for Rosatom, which didn’t manage the first switch-over.
“They don’t have the people”
An even bigger challenge for Russia is finding trained staff to make the switch to the Russian grid and run the plant amid a war. That reality explains recent efforts to make Ukrainian Energoatom employees sign contracts with Rosatom at the already short-handed facility. The IAEA inspection team said that while 1,230 people usually staff the plant’s emergency response team, they are now down to 907 people working in three shifts instead of the normal four. The plant fire brigade is down to 80 people instead of the normal 150 — and those firefighters are working 16-hour shifts.
“They don’t have the people to operate that plant,” said Moore. “They might be able to get one reactor up and running, but they need the 11,000 to 15,000 people who work on a site [of] that size. There’s just no way that they can bring people in from Russia to get rid of the Ukrainians and do that.”
Ukrainians at the plant are already working with low morale, according to the IAEA, running the facility at gunpoint, with reports of torture and vanished colleagues in the initial takeover. In the latest news, troops from a Chechen military organization have reportedly been installed at the plant.
No magic wand
The biggest challenge might be that the plant is only miles from the front lines of a war that Russia is losing. That makes the idea of operating the plant, much less rewiring it to a new grid, somewhat fantastical, said nuclear experts.
“Certainly, if someone said, ‘OK, we’ll wave a magic wand and we’ll stop the war, everybody will sit right where they are and those are going to be the new boundaries,’ then Putin could confiscate that reactor complex,” said Moore. Whether Russia, a petro-state that is sitting on reserves of natural gas that will not be shipped to Europe this winter, even needs the power from the plant is an open question, he added. “Certainly, they don’t need it like they are going to run out of power.”
In recent weeks, the IAEA’s Grossi has visited both Kyiv and Moscow, meeting with Putin on March 11, to discuss his plan to set up a demilitarized “protection zone” around the plant. In the meantime, external cooling power to the plant has been cut three times by shelling in the last two weeks, although it has other external power from a repaired electric switchyard facility connected to a nearby, shuttered coal plant.
Even if the reactors remain shut down, said Carlson, cooling water will be required for at least a year, probably longer, to maintain the spent fuel on site at safe temperatures. In the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster of 2011, spent fuel rods boiling off their cooling pools and heating up to release radioactive elements inside them was one of the serious concerns in the disaster. If Russia did try to “steal” power generated the Zaporizhzhia plant, he added, “it is not an option for Ukrainian forces to cut power supply to and from ZNPP — this would create a major safety risk” for those reasons. If the external power lines and switchyard power are cut off at the plant, it has only about 10 days of diesel-powered backup generator fuel on site.
“Trying to operate ZNPP while the war is ongoing would be grossly irresponsible,” said Carlson. The plant, “should remain shut down while there is fighting anywhere in the vicinity, and preferably until the war is concluded.”
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.