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What Is Going On at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Plant?

The threat of a catastrophic accident persists amid heavy fighting in the area.

The Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine. Photo: Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency
The Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine. Photo: Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency

Amid a tense stalemate in the six-month-old war in Ukraine, fighting around the country’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant is once again prompting fears of a nuclear catastrophe. The 37-year-old facility, which is located on the Dnieper River in southeastern Ukraine and is Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, has repeatedly been shelled in recent weeks — which Ukraine blames on Russia and Russia blames on Ukraine. The plant has been under the control of Russian forces since shortly after they invaded the country, but remains operated by Ukrainian workers, and is just kilometers from territory still held by Ukraine. Last week, damage from an alleged artillery strike caused a temporary power outage at the plant, exacerbating the risk of a nuclear accident and intensifying the ongoing international efforts to send in a team of outside experts to evaluate the condition of the facility. That visit is now expected to happen this week, but shelling in the area continues, and may increase amid now that a major Ukrainian counteroffensive is reportedly underway in the country. Below is what we know about the situation, which remains as fluid as it is scary.

IAEA inspectors are en route.

A team of experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency has been sent to evaluate the condition of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, following weeks of frustrating negotiations with Russia and Ukraine over access to the facility.

The team may arrive as soon as Wednesday, according to an official who spoke with the New York Times, though it’s not clear how they’ll get to the plant or how long they’ll be able to stay there:

The person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters, also said the I.A.E.A. would like to establish an enduring presence there even after the team completed its inspection. But it is unclear how it could do so in a plant occupied by a foreign power in the midst of an active war zone.

One expert with experience working at ZNPP, Excel Services Corporation nuclear oversight officer Morgan D. Libby, told the Wall Street Journal that the team may need weeks to evaluate and address the situation, emphasizing that, “After Chernobyl, this is the most important mission the IAEA has ever undertaken — everything else pales in comparison.”

Heavy fighting continues around the nuclear plant.

The area surrounding Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant remains a very active war zone, and the threat of sporadic shelling continues, particularly now that a significant Ukrainian counteroffensive is now underway in the country. Ukrainian officials claim their forces broke through the front line and retook four villages near the Russian occupied city of Kherson, which is about 200 km southwest of ZNPP.

Russian forces conducted artillery and rocket strikes in Ukrainian-held territory across the Dnieper River from the plant again on Sunday and Monday, according to Ukrainian officials. Russian officials said Ukrainian forces twice shelled the plant over the weekend, and claimed some of the shells struck near critical buildings.

While it appears ZNPP’s reactors remain well protected from artillery fire, support systems and storage facilities for nuclear materials remain vulnerable to both shells and fires. Numerous small wildfires, likely started by shelling, have been visible in satellite images of the site in recent days.

The power is back on at the plant after an alarming 24-hour outage.

On Thursday, Ukraine’s atomic-energy company, Energoatom, said that two of ZNPP’s reactors had been disconnected from Ukraine’s power grid following damage to a transmission line supplying the plant — which the company blamed on Russian shelling, while Russia blamed Ukraine. The facility was able to switch to on-site diesel generators, and later a nearby geothermal power plant, for emergency backup power. That maintained power to the reactor cooling systems, which are critical to avoiding a nuclear meltdown. Still, Energoatom warned that the infrastructure damage and loss of off-site electricity increased the threat of “hydrogen leakage and sputtering of radioactive substances” as well the danger of a fire at the plant.

Luckily, workers were able to reconnect the reactors to the power crid within 24 hours, and both Ukraine and Russia said Saturday that radiation levels remained normal at the plant. Nonetheless, the episode renewed fears that it is just a matter of time until the nearby fighting leads to disaster. On Friday in the nearby city of Zaporizhzhia, Ukrainian authorities began distributing iodine tablets to residents (which can help prevent the absorption of radiation in the event of exposure).

People receive iodine tablets at a distribution point in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, on Friday. Photo: Andriy Andriyenko/AP/Shutterstock

Who is shelling the plant?

That’s not clear. Both sides continue to blame the other. Both sides have also recently warned that the other would stage a false-flag attack on the plant. Ukraine has, for the length of the war, called for Russian forces to leave the area so the fighting wouldn’t threaten the plant. Russia has claimed that its forces are securing ZNPP so that nothing bad happens to it.

This post has been updated.

What Is Going On at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Plant?