The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant: who controls it and why is it important?

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WHAT HAPPENS IN A MELTDOWN?

A meltdown of the fuel, which remains extremely hot for some time even after the reactor shutdown, could begin a fire or explosion that could release a plume of radionuclides into the air where they could be spread over a large area.

The Chornobyl accident spread Iodine-131, Caesium-134, Strontium-90 and Caesium-137 across parts of northern Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, northern and central Europe.

Nearly 8.4 million people in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine were exposed to radiation, according to the United Nations. Around 50 deaths are directly attributed to the disaster itself.

But 600,000 “liquidators”, involved in fire-fighting and clean-up operations, were exposed to high doses of radiation. Hundreds of thousands were resettled.

There is mounting evidence that the health impact of the Chornobyl disaster was much more serious than initially presented at the time and in the years following the accident.

Incidence of thyroid cancer in children across swathes of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine increased after the accident. There was a much higher incidence of endocrine disorders, anaemia and respiratory diseases among children in contaminated areas.

WHAT ABOUT THE SPENT FUEL?

Besides the reactors, there is also a dry spent fuel storage facility at the site for used nuclear fuel assemblies, and spent fuel pools at each reactor site that are used to cool down the used nuclear fuel.

“The basins of spent fuel are just big pools with uranium fuel rods in them – they are really hot depending on how long they have been there,” Kate Brown, an environmental historian at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology whose book “Manual for Survival” documents the full scale of the Chornobyl disaster, said in August.

“If fresh water is not put in, then the water will evaporate. Once the water evaporates, then the zirconium cladding will heat up and it can catch fire and then we have a bad situation – a fire of irradiated uranium which is very like the Chornobyl situation releasing a whole complex of radioactive isotopes.”

An emission of hydrogen from a spent fuel pool caused an explosion at reactor 4 in Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011.

According to a 2017 Ukrainian submission to the IAEA, there was a total of more than 2,200 tonnes of nuclear material excluding the reactors.

WHO CONTROLS IT?

After invading Ukraine on Feb 24, Russian forces took control of the plant in early March.

Special Russian military units guard the facility and Russian nuclear specialists are on site. Ukrainian staff continue to help operate the plant.

After Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed a swathe of Ukraine, including the area where the nuclear plant is located, he signed a decree on Oct 5 to formalise Russian control over the plant.

IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi has proposed the establishment of a nuclear safety and security protection zone around the plant.