Explainer-The nuclear power plant in the eye of the Ukraine war


By Guy Faulconbridge and Francois Murphy

MOSCOW/VIENNA (Reuters) – Russia said Ukraine struck the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station controlled by Russian forces three times on Sunday and demanded the West respond, though Kyiv said it had nothing to do with the attacks.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has long warned of the risks of a disaster at Zaporizhzhia, Europe’s largest nuclear plant, and urged an end to fighting in the area.

The plant is just 500 km (300 miles) from the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident, the 1986 Chornobyl disaster.

What nuclear material is at the Zaporizhzhia plant, what are the risks and why are Russia and Ukraine fighting over it? 


The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant has six Soviet-designed VVER-1000 V-320 water-cooled and water-moderated reactors containing 235. They were all built in the 1980s, though the sixth only came online in the mid-1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

All but one of the reactors are in cold shutdown. Reactor unit 4 is in “hot shutdown”, mainly for heating purposes.

IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi says that fighting a war around a nuclear plant has put nuclear safety and security in “constant jeopardy”.


Russia’s state nuclear corporation, Rosatom, said Ukraine attacked the plant three times on Sunday with drones, first injuring three near a canteen, then attacking a cargo area and then the dome above reactor No. 6.

IAEA experts at the site went to the three locations of the attacks and confirmed there had been an attack.

“Russian troops engaged what appeared to be an approaching drone,” the IAEA said. “This was followed by an explosion near the reactor building.”

“While the team so far has not observed any structural damage to systems, structures, and components important to nuclear safety or security of the plant, they reported observing minor superficial scorching to the top of the reactor dome roof of Unit 6 and scoring of a concrete slab supporting the primary make-up water storage tanks,” the IAEA said.

The IAEA did not say directly who was to blame for the attacks.

A Ukrainian intelligence official said Kyiv had nothing to do with any strikes on the station and suggested they were the work of Russians themselves.


Russian forces took control of the plant in early March 2022, weeks after invading Ukraine. Special Russian military units guard the facility and a unit of Russia’s state nuclear company, Rosatom, runs the plant.

Nuclear reactors’ containment structures like Zaporizhzhia’s are made of steel-lined reinforced concrete designed to withstand the impact of a small plane crash so there is little immediate risk from a minor attack on those structures.

A 1989 study by the U.S. Department of Energy found that the model of containment structure used in Zaporizhzia “exhibits vulnerabilities to the effects of an aircraft crash” and a fighter jet crashing downwards into the dome, where the structure is thinner, could penetrate it, causing concrete chunks and aircraft engine parts to fall inside.

External power lines essential to cooling nuclear fuel in the reactors are a softer potential target. Cooling fuel even in reactors in cold shutdown is necessary to prevent a nuclear meltdown.

Since the war began the plant has lost all external power eight times, most recently in December last year, forcing it to rely on emergency diesel generators for power. Water is also needed to cool fuel.

Pressurised water is used to transfer heat away from the reactors even when they are shut down, and pumped water is also used to cool down removed spent nuclear fuel from the reactors.

Without enough water, or power to pump the water, the fuel could melt down and the zirconium cladding could release hydrogen, which can explode. 


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.

Without water supply to the pools, the water evaporates and the temperatures increase, risking a fire that could release a number 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.


A meltdown of the fuel could trigger a fire or explosion that could release a plume of radionuclides into the air which could then 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.  

© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A view shows the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in the course of Russia-Ukraine conflict outside the city of Enerhodar in the Zaporizhzhia region, Russian-controlled Ukraine, November 24, 2022. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko/File Photo

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.