11 maart 2022

Nuclear and radiation safety threats created by Russian invasion in Ukraine

In this article, three staff member of EcoAction explain the threats on nuclear safety issues in Ukraine. All three, Oleg Savitskyi, Olexi Pasiuk and Oksana Ananyeva had to leave Kyiv and are now relatively safe in the western part of the country. EcoAction is a leading environmental NGO in Ukraine, based in Kyiv but operating nationally. It works on energy issues, including nuclear energy and coal-phaseout, climate change mitigation and adaptation, sustainability and sustainable finance, mobility, industry and environment, biodiversity and agriculture. https://en.ecoaction.org.ua/


On March 7 the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine at its website informed the public about an extraordinary meeting of the European group of nuclear regulatory agencies ENSREG, which  was held on March 6, 2022, with the participation of the IAEA, WENRA, the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine (SNRIU) and two observers (Switzerland, Great Britain)  in order to consider the nuclear safety of Ukrainian nuclear facilities in connection with the military aggression of the Russian Federation against Ukraine.

“ENSREG calls on the Russian military to abandon nuclear facilities immediately so the operator can ensure the safe operation of the facilities, conduct a full assessment of their condition and repair the damage”, – reads the SNRIU statement. The meeting discussed the consequences of the Russian military attack on nuclear facilities in Ukraine, including the largest nuclear power plant in Europe – Zaporizhzhya NPP and the nuclear research facility in Kharkiv.

On Sunday, March 6, the Russian troops shelled the site of the National Research Center “Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology” with reactive artillery. Here, the nuclear reactor “Neutron Source” is located. The reactor is loaded with 37 nuclear fuel assemblies. The building where the reactor is installed was attacked with “Hail” rocket launchers, according to the State Security Service of Ukraine.

Two days before, in the early hours on Friday 4 March, Russian tanks entered the territory of the Zaporizhzhya nuclear plant and opened artillery fire at reactor Unit 1 and administrative buildings. Later, the State Nuclear Regulatory Commission of Ukraine reported that the critical safety systems of Unit 1 were not affected, no release of radioactive materials had occurred. The Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant is currently under control of Russian armed forces. As of 10:00 in the morning of 7 March,  two of the six reactors at the site were operating and connected to the grid. There are also concerns about spent fuel storage facilities located onsite (deactivation and cooling ponds, centralized dry storage area with 150 containers). The personnel at the plant continue the work on providing nuclear safety and monitoring radiation in “normal” mode of operation, though there is no possibility for the regular rotation.

The presence of armed enemy troops and heavy weapons on the territory of the Zaporizhzhya NPP and in the city of Energodar creates psychological pressure on both NPP personnel and the city population. There are outages of mobile communications in the city, most internet service providers are not working, there are problems with food supplies. All this has a negative impact on the morale of the NPP staff and significantly affects the nuclear and radiation safety of the NPP. Fighting and intimidation of personnel creates an emergency situation. Coupled with possible disruptions in the power system due to infrastructure damage this creates an extremely dangerous situation, which should not be underestimated.

Hostilities in the Zaporizhzhya region continue aggravating threats to the safety of the Zaporizhzhya NPP. In particular, on 6 March 2022 at 16:06 the 750 kV high-voltage line was disconnected due to its damage in the area of the settlement of Vasylivka during fierce fighting. As an operational nuclear power plant requires electricity supply at all times, loss of grid connections can pose a risk of technical disruptions and may end up in catastrophe if the back-up diesel generators do not start up properly.

Apart from the nuclear risks, the current situation poses significant risks for the stable operation of the national grid. On 24 February, the Ukrainian grid was disconnected from Russia and Belarus as the first “island mode test” test in preparation to connect to the European ENTSOE network, which was originally planned for 2023. As the test was over on 26 February, connecting back to Russia was politically not an option for Ukraine. For now, in the absence of interconnection with a bigger grid, the Ukrainian electricity sector is highly vulnerable to demand fluctuation. The situation is being partly mitigated by the consumption drop due to the war, though further action is urgent. There is a political will to connect Ukraine to ENTSOe as fast as possible and technicians currently make necessary preparations to make it possible.

Ukrainian nuclear power plants generate about 50% to 60% of the electricity, while one nuclear unit of 1GW provides over 7% of the entire country’s consumption. Emergency shutdown of any nuclear facility in operation (due to military activity) will result in an electricity production drop and need for urgent compensation, which is particularly difficult in the mode of an isolated energy system. When the Russian army attacked the Zaporizhzhya NPP, two out of three units that were in operation were stopped and started to cool down.

Currently, the Russian aggressors are also targeting the South Ukrainian NPP in the Mykolaiv region, which generates 10% of annual electricity production in Ukraine with its 3 GW capacity and meets the electricity supply needs of the entire South of Ukraine.

At the beginning of the invasion, Russian troops seized control over nuclear facilities in the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone, including two spent nuclear fuel facilities and the confinement of destroyed unit 4 at the site of Chornobyl NPP. There are more than 22,000 spent reactor fuel assemblies in the spent nuclear fuel storage facilities SNF-1 and SNF-2 in the Chornobyl exclusion zone.

Also, in the first week of the war, two radioactive waste storage sites of the  “Radon” association in Kyiv and Kharkiv were under Russian missile and artillery strikes, only by luck no release of radioactive materials to the environment occured.

The NGO EcoAction is following the situation closely and warns that the actions of the Russian invaders in Ukraine already pose severe nuclear and radiation safety threats to other European countries and the world as a whole. EcoAction calls on civil society groups all over the world to appeal to the governments of their countries and to international organizations to intervene in the situation.

“NNEGC Energoatom, as the operator of Ukrainian nuclear power plants, has repeatedly appealed to the IAEA to take measures to cease fire and prevent the approach of Russian forces closer than 30 km from the nuclear power plant, and to call on NATO to close the skies over Ukraine. Unfortunately, so far the IAEA is only expressing concern and offering to visit Ukraine to meet with representatives of the Russian and Ukrainian sides. But won’t it be too late?” – asks EcoAction.

EcoAction also emphasizes that the work of high-capacity energy facilities – NPPs, TPPs, CHPs, HPPs, PSPs – creates vulnerabilities in the energy and overall security of the country, its society, and the environment, making the power system fragile in the face of man-made terror and natural disasters, which are intensifying due to climate change. EcoAction advocates for a transition to decentralized renewable energy sources as long-term solution and calls for immediate mobilization of the international community to stop the nuclear terror imposed by the Russian invasion in Ukraine.

Situation updates in English can be accessed from the official website of the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine: https://snriu.gov.ua/en 


Oleg Savitskyi – climate and energy policy expert, board member of EcoAction. Currently evacuated to Lviv and staying at the office of an IT-company, which is currently in use as a shelter for dislocated persons.

Olexi Pasiuk – Programme coordinator at CEE Bankwatch & Deputy Executive Director at EcoAction. Was forced to move to Ivano-Frankivsk to keep his family safe. At the moment, multitasking while working, taking care of kids, volunteering to help refugees and civilians, who are still trapped in Kyiv.

Oksana Ananyeva – Energy policy expert at EcoAction. Left Kyiv with two kids on the first day of war. Currently staying in Cherkassy, in central part of Ukraine, sharing the accommodation with two other families. Taking care of kids and three cats, having a problem with getting time and space for work. Assessing whether she needs to flee further westwards.