Degradation Everywhere: The Long-Term Risks at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Plant

Ongoing risk: the difficulties of operating the Zaporizhzhia plant were highlighted by the flooding of nearby land after the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam in June 2023. Image: Soloviova Liudmyla / Adobe Stock

Situated on the front line of the war in Ukraine, the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant poses ongoing risks. These relate not only to the threat of Russian sabotage, but also to the gradual deterioration of the facility under the current extreme operating conditions.

Since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the safety of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants and facilities has been a source of concern. Ukraine hosts four operational nuclear power plants (NPP), including Europe’s largest – the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP). It is also home to Europe’s most infamous NPP, at Chornobyl – the site of the major 1986 disaster which saw the eventual displacement of 350,000 people and resulted in the spread of radioactive particles around the world. The continued occupation of the ZNPP by Russian forces and its precarious location on the front line of the war have raised fears across Europe and around the world of a repeat of the 1986 Chornobyl disaster. There have been a number of inflection points over the last year and a half when concerns over the potential for a large-scale radioactive disaster at the ZNPP have reached fever pitch – most recently in early July, in light of warnings from both the Russians and the Ukrainians that the other side was preparing an imminent attack on the plant. While the potential for an engineered incident or attack resulting in radioactive release at the ZNPP cannot be ruled out, the more salient and probable – yet less headline-grabbing – threat to the ZNPP is the slow degradation of the plant’s systems and the consequent safety and economic implications of this chronic deterioration.

Ultimately, while the ZNPP remains under occupation by Russian forces – who have shown little consideration for human life, nuclear safety or international law – the potential for the site to be used as a giant dirty bomb cannot and should not be ruled out. Moscow may decide to purposefully engineer a malfunctioning of key safety systems or strike parts of the facility to release radioactive material into the surrounding areas. The fact that the facility is on the front line of a military conflict and is already operating under exceptional stress – to its key operating systems (namely, water and electricity supply) as well as to its Ukrainian staff (who have faced harassment and are working in an active warzone) – also means that it would be relatively easy for Russia to write off an engineered incident as a no-fault accident or to place blame on the Ukrainian military or personnel. The ongoing military activity in the vicinity of the ZNPP also raises the possibility that key systems and equipment at the plant could be damaged in a strike.

Most nuclear experts agree that, under the ZNPP’s current operating conditions, any radioactive release in case of an attack or accident at the site would not equate to the 1986 Chornobyl disaster. An incident on the scale of the 2011 accident at Japan’s Fukushima-Daiichi NPP is a more appropriate comparison, but also unlikely under the current circumstances. However, depending on the scale and nature of the actual incident, as well as the efforts put into managing the emergency, there is some risk of radioactive release. Such a release of radioactivity – or fears of a release – could be weaponised by Russian forces to tie up Ukrainian military resources in responding to the radioactive contamination, to prevent access to the facility by advancing Ukrainian troops, as well as to sow widespread panic among the Ukrainian population. Threats to cause an incident or exacerbate one, or offers to stop one from happening or from escalating, could also be used by Moscow to create leverage and secure concessions from Ukraine and its allies elsewhere in the conflict – either on the battlefield or in the diplomatic space.

Under the current circumstances, the plant is likely to be more useful to Moscow as a source of leverage and a means of sowing public anxiety than as a giant dirty bomb

Yet, causing an incident at the facility while they continue to occupy it would presumably make little sense for Russia. However, this is not – as some have pointed out – because an accident at the ZNPP would put parts of Russia’s territory and population at risk. Moscow is not known for its concern for the general Russian population, and blaming Ukraine for an accident – as Moscow undoubtedly would – would likely only galvanise support for the invasion among the Russian population. And, as mentioned earlier, an incident at the ZNPP does not necessarily need to result in major radioactive spread.

If Russian forces wanted to continue operating at or around the ZNPP, generating an incident at the facility would leave Moscow having to deal with at least some of the clean-up of the released radiological material – tying up resources and making operation around the facility more challenging. Depending on the nature of the incident, the plant may also be left inoperable, thus undermining reported Russian intentions to eventually connect the ZNPP to the Crimean and Russian energy grid (although plans to do so appear to have stalled or to have been abandoned for the time being). Russia would instead be left with a huge, damaged installation in need of repair or decommissioning. Under the current circumstances, the plant is thus likely to be more useful to Moscow as a source of leverage to extract concessions from Ukraine and its partners and to sow public anxiety than as a giant dirty bomb.

However, that calculation will almost certainly change in the instance of a Russian withdrawal from the ZNPP. On their departure, Russian forces will have little incentive to leave the plant operational and plenty of reasons to engineer an incident at the site. In addition to the strain on military and economic resources from having to deal with a radioactive release, as well as the implications for freedom of military movement at and around a contaminated facility, a damaged ZNPP would in turn leave Kyiv managing a massive piece of damaged critical infrastructure, with significant long-term safety and economic implications.

In fact, there may not be a need for Russia to engineer a system malfunction or directly attack the ZNPP to turn the site into an economic liability and safety hazard for Ukraine after its recapture. A year and a half of military occupation is threatening to do that already. NPPs are robust things, with multiple redundancies and safety systems built in to keep them operating safely under extreme conditions. But no NPP is built to withstand extended operations in an active warzone. The ZNPP has had to put up with mine explosions and fire; it is regularly disconnected from the external power grid; it has been depending on a backup water supply for months; some of its reactors have been held in hot shutdown for months (well beyond the regulatory time limits for operation in this state); and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has reported on shortages of maintenance staff and supply chain challenges. At a recent meeting with journalists in early September, Petro Kotin – the head of Ukraine’s nuclear energy utility Energoatom – noted: ‘It is degradation everywhere … Everything is degraded – equipment, components and personnel. Everything is in very bad condition’. At a press conference on 11 September, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi noted his concerns over ‘technical issues that are starting to arise’, appearing to suggest that some may be related to the long-term shutdown of the plant.

There is no guarantee that Russia will not attack or otherwise seek to generate a radiological release at the plant, despite it not being in Moscow’s interest

Should the military situation around the ZNPP ease enough in the future to allow the facility’s reactors to be brought out of their shutdown state and to begin generating energy again, a thorough inspection and servicing of the facility will be necessary. This will be a massive undertaking. The site is a massive complex; in addition to its six reactors, auxiliary buildings and other support and staff infrastructure, it also hosts a dry spent fuel storage site and a training facility. The whole of the site will have to go through a demining operation, and its reactors will need to undergo a top-to-bottom review to ensure that all is in working order.

Some have even suggested that the site may not be redeemable at all after the occupation, which would require the decommissioning of the NPP. This may become true, depending on the length of the occupation and the state in which the Russian occupiers leave the site. This, too, would incur significant costs; while decommissioning costs for nuclear facilities depend on a range of factors, the IAEA estimates that the decommissioning of a single nuclear power reactor, including costs for associated waste management, comes with a price tag of between $500 million and $2 billion and typically takes 15 to 20 years. These figures, combined with the rendering inoperable of a facility that – prior to the large-scale invasion of Ukraine – was responsible for 25% of the country’s energy supply, would have colossal economic implications for post-war Ukraine, which will already be facing massive reconstruction costs and logistical challenges.

Ultimately, trying to predict Russian thinking in Ukraine is a fool’s errand. There is no guarantee that Russia will not attack or otherwise seek to generate a radiological release at the ZNPP, despite it not being in Moscow’s interest; in fact, in the event of a Russian withdrawal from the ZNPP, the risk of sabotage at the site will be acute. Ukraine’s allies in the UK, the US, Europe and elsewhere should continue to remain ready to support Ukraine in case of an emergency and radiological release at the ZNPP, through the supply of CBRN equipment and training as requested by Kyiv, as well as the provision of mental health support. They should also continue to make clear that any incident at the ZNPP resulting from Russian action (or inaction) will not go unanswered, and coordinate with Ukraine on an appropriate and credible deterrent and plan of response. Yet, while an engineered incident at the ZNPP remains possible, the massive strain on economic resources – as well as the longer-term safety implications – resulting from the degradation of the ZNPP’s systems are a certainty. As such, it is critical that the response of Ukraine’s partners to the situation at the ZNPP includes allocating the economic resources and technical assistance that will be needed following de-occupation to ensure the safe operation of Europe’s largest NPP.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Darya Dolzikova​

Research Fellow

Proliferation and Nuclear Policy

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