Can the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Plant Keep away from a Main Catastrophe?

By Edwin Lyman, an internationally acknowledged skilled on nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism in addition to nuclear energy security and safety. He’s a member of the Institute of Nuclear Supplies Administration and has testified quite a few instances earlier than Congress and the Nuclear Regulatory Fee.

As the potential of an all-out army battle engulfing the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in Ukraine turns into much more seemingly, the scenario there’s rising more and more dire. It has been reported that on August 25, the plant quickly misplaced all of its off-site electrical energy from the grid, which is crucial for its protected operation, forcing it to depend on on-site backup energy. Regardless of continued shelling, it doesn’t seem that its security techniques have suffered important harm. However that would change shortly if the battle escalates — and that would spell catastrophe if emergency measures fail. Relying on the character and extent of the harm, the plant might expertise a number of core meltdowns or spent nuclear gas pool fires, which might set off a radiological launch rivaling that of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi accident and even the bigger launch from the 1986 Chernobyl accident.

Thankfully, a long-overdue Worldwide Atomic Power Company (IAEA) mission to Zaporizhzhia could quickly turn out to be attainable. Whereas the IAEA has restricted authority over nuclear security even in peacetime, there are sensible steps it might take to assist the plant deal with any harm that may disrupt the techniques that hold its extremely radioactive reactor cores and spent nuclear gas cool.

To establish the actions that may be most useful to scale back the chance of a giant radiological launch, it’s necessary to know the principle vulnerabilities of the six Soviet-era 950-megawatt-electric VVER-1000/V-320 (V-320) Zaporizhzhia reactors. As many information experiences have famous, the V-320 is a light-water reactor with extra in frequent with Western-designed pressurized-water reactors (PWRs) than Chernobyl’s RBMK. A serious distinction is that not like the Chernobyl reactor, the V-320 has a pressure-resisting, low-leakage, strengthened concrete containment construction. Nonetheless, the V-320 lacks sure security options which are commonplace in Western-designed light-water reactors, and there have lengthy been issues that the V-320 containment could possibly be breached or bypassed in a extreme accident extra simply than the containments at most Western-designed PWRs.

One concern is the comparatively excessive probability {that a} broken core might shortly soften by the elevated containment flooring right into a compartment beneath that isn’t leak-tight. Whereas this may not essentially result in a big, fast launch of radioactivity into the setting, it might end in a scenario just like that of Fukushima at present, the place broken cores within the basements of the containment buildings proceed to launch radiation into the groundwater. Furthermore, though the containment gives some safety towards exterior impacts, similar to an airplane crash, such an influence might trigger “heavy concrete fragments … and different particles [to] impinge upon the working flooring above the first coolant system,” in line with the US Division of Power.

A station blackout, the place all alternating-current (AC) electrical energy is misplaced, is without doubt one of the most extreme occasions that would have an effect on a light-water reactor. Such an occasion could possibly be triggered by widespread fires and explosions ensuing from a sustained army engagement at Zaporizhzhia that damages the plant’s switchyard and different electrical tools. If the plant misplaced all off-site energy, the reactors would shut down, and the location can be dependent solely on backup sources.

The primary line of protection is the set of 20 emergency diesel mills on the website — three at every reactor unit and two frequent models in a separate constructing supporting reactors 5 and 6. Situations during which all diesel mills fail are inconceivable, however they do exist. For instance, the tsunami at Fukushima Daiichi flooded and disabled all however one of many plant’s emergency diesel mills, in addition to {the electrical} distribution techniques — what is named a common-cause failure. Different common-cause failures might have an effect on Zaporizhzhia’s diesel mills, such because the failure of the dam at a close-by hydroelectric plant. That would result in lack of the cooling ponds, that are wanted to chill the plant’s diesel mills, enabling them to operate.

Different backup energy sources could also be obtainable at Zaporizhzhia within the occasion of a common-cause diesel generator failure, similar to a fossil gas plant close to the location. But when they’re unavailable, the location’s solely recourse can be to implement the emergency measures that Ukraine established in response to the Fukushima accident. These measures contain the usage of moveable diesel mills and diesel-powered pumps to offer emergency cooling when all else fails. Nevertheless, the probability of success is unsure, on condition that each the tools and the personnel wanted to hold out these duties are extremely weak given the present scenario. And the reliability of such tools will depend on how properly it has been examined and maintained because the Russian occupation in March — an enormous query mark. At US nuclear vegetation, such tools has sometimes been discovered to be non-functional due to lax upkeep necessities.

A station blackout at Zaporizhzhia

If an working reactor on the Zaporizhzhia plant loses all AC energy, its electricity-generating steam turbine would shut down, and each the first coolant pumps that flow into water by the reactor core and the feedwater pumps that flow into water by the steam mills would cease working. On this state of affairs, until operators undertake emergency actions to revive core cooling, the water degree would drop within the reactor vessel and the gas assemblies would warmth up quickly and start to degrade. Ultimately, the molten gas would drop to the ground of the reactor vessel and soften by it onto the containment flooring, the place it might react with the concrete. After that, the extent to which radiation escapes from the containment into the setting would rely on the particular nature of the accident development.

How quickly might this sequence of occasions start? One simulation of a station blackout at a V-320 working at full energy exhibits that the steam mills would dry out after 1.2 hours, the core would start to warmth up after 2.6 hours, fission product releases would start quickly thereafter, and the decrease head of the reactor vessel would fail after 4.3 hours. Given this very quick timeline, Zaporizhzhia operators must react in a short time within the occasion of a station blackout to hold out emergency measures to forestall core harm.

(Whereas such quickly evolving accidents are attainable at US PWRs, they’re geared up with auxiliary feedwater pumps powered by a steam turbine and subsequently don’t want AC energy to function. If a station blackout occurred and motor-driven emergency feedwater pumps had been unavailable, these turbine-driven pumps might delay the time to core heat-up, offering extra time for energy to be restored earlier than core soften happens. The correct functioning of those pumps relies upon partially on the supply of direct-current energy from batteries, which is required for operators to regulate the turbine velocity and valves. Thus, this method gives extra coping time relying on the battery life, which is 4 to eight hours for many US vegetation. Nevertheless, the V-320 doesn’t have such a system.)

In keeping with research by the Ukrainian nuclear regulator of Zaporizhzhia Unit 5, if operators carried out emergency procedures earlier than the steam mills dried out, they might lengthen the interval earlier than the steam mills dried out to eight hours after the blackout started, and different emergency measures might delay core harm for one more 10 hours. Each minute that core harm is delayed would supply time for operators to reestablish extra dependable energy provides on the website.

This demonstrates the significance of immediate operator actions within the occasion of a station blackout to delay core harm, and in addition why experiences that Ukrainian plant personnel are working underneath excessive duress (and should have even been tortured by their Russian army overseers) are of such nice concern. If plant personnel can’t reply quickly and appropriately, with a transparent line of command and freedom of motion, then the probability that they might perform these complicated, tough actions efficiently would lower considerably. Their degree of coaching to deal with these potential eventualities can be an element. In addition to that, their response would rely on having sufficient gas for the emergency diesel mills and different emergency tools on website, to not point out the state of the tools and the way properly it is protected against additional army assault. The tools can be of no use if it can’t operate every time and nonetheless lengthy it’s wanted.

For shutdown reactors, the obtainable time window for emergency response will increase because the gas cools down. For instance, one evaluation of a station blackout at a shutdown PWR discovered that at 33 hours after the reactor is scrammed, the time to core heat-up and harm can be greater than 6.6 hours, assuming the vessel stays crammed with water. Thus, there’s some extra security margin so long as the reactors stay shut down. Even so, the gas within the cores and the spent gas within the swimming pools adjoining to the reactor vessels would stay dangerously sizzling and proceed to require lively cooling to forestall overheating and harm, though the speed of cooling wanted would lower.

What concerning the spent gas?

Not like Western PWRs, whose spent gas swimming pools are exterior of the containment constructing in much less strong, auxiliary buildings, the spent gas swimming pools at V-320 reactors are throughout the containment constructing. Though this reduces their vulnerability to army strikes and should inhibit radioactive releases within the occasion of spent gas harm, it introduces extra issues. As a result of the reactor cores and spent gas swimming pools are extra carefully coupled, accidents affecting one could also be extra prone to additionally contain the opposite. And the containment, as mentioned earlier, doesn’t present full safety. One research discovered that spent gas pool accidents at all these reactors might result in pretty extreme radioactive contamination not less than 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) away because of leaks from pipes that penetrate the containment.

The Zaporizhzhia plant has a dry cask storage facility for spent gas. Though it’s exterior of any containment, it presents a decrease threat of a giant radiological launch. The casks are pretty strong strengthened concrete constructions. For a big launch from a cask to happen, there would have to be not solely a big breach of a cask, but in addition sustained heating of the spent gas throughout the cask that may harm the gas and supply a driving drive for it. This is likely to be attainable, as an example, if there have been a sizzling, long-duration hearth engulfing the casks, however in all probability not from strikes from a couple of artillery shells.

What will be executed?

Essentially the most sensible steps the IAEA and plant operators might take to strengthen the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant’s resilience within the occasion of a chronic offsite energy loss or different varieties of harm embrace:

  • Making certain that satisfactory provides of gas for the emergency diesel mills and different diesel-powered emergency tools on the website will be effectively replenished when wanted;
  • Making certain adequate reserves of high-quality water will be reliably delivered to provide emergency pumps;
  • Inspecting and sustaining the diesel mills and different emergency tools to insure they’re working reliably; and
  • Reviewing the plant’s emergency response procedures and conducting drills to instill confidence that they’re workable and the employees can implement them in an emergency.

In fact, a world mission can solely accomplish these steps if Russia cooperates. And it ought to. Hopefully, all events will acknowledge that it’s of their greatest curiosity to make sure that the plant stays operational and doesn’t threat a large-scale contamination incident. Not like Fukushima, which was on the mercy of an uncontrollable pure catastrophe, an accident at Zaporizhzhia on account of a wartime assault is fully preventable.

Courtesy of The Equation.

Featured picture courtesy of Alexey Tolmachov (CC BY-SA 4.0 license)


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