After Russia began attacking the Zaporizhzhia nuclear station, a news report said, “reactor hit”. Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, tweeted that if an explosion occurred it could be “10 times larger than Chernobyl”.
President Volodymyr Zelensky said that “if there is an explosion that’s the end for everyone. The end for Europe. The evacuation of Europe”. Such utter nonsense only confuses the outrage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, an invasion which took me by surprise and which I condemn outright. It also detracts from Zelensky’s heroic and admirable performance during this ordeal.
On Friday morning I was dragged out of bed to do a garbled TV interview on the attack on the nuclear plant. My slow brain did not have enough preparation time. I was baffled by Zoom and I had seen only confused and contradictory reports about the Russian attack. I know somewhat more now, but am still confused about much. The trouble is that both sides in the war are lying through their teeth, and the journalists, when they don’t know what is going on (which is most of the time), always default to sensation and hysteria. I know a bit about nuclear power but nothing about Ukrainian politics, which seem more complicated than reactor physics. Let me try to explain some things.
The Ukraine has four operating nuclear power stations and one that has shut down. The closed one is in Chernobyl in the north, near the Belarus border. It had four of the terrible RBMK reactors, whose dreadful design caused the world’s worst nuclear power accident at Unit 4 in 1986: another reason for Ukraine to hate Russia. Deliberate, criminal violation of safe operating procedures triggered off the accident, but the fundamental cause was the bad design, chosen probably because it allowed on-line refueling, which enabled it to make fuel for nuclear weapons.
The reactors used elsewhere in the Ukraine have excellent VVER reactors, which are pressurised water reactors (PWRs), such as those at Koeberg and most of the world’s nuclear plants. (VVER stands for “water-water energy reactor”.) The reactor makes only hot water, at high pressure. The hot water goes to a heat-exchanger called a steam generator (SG), where cold water flowing on the other side of the SG turns into steam to drive the turbines, to drive the generators. A PWR cannot make weapons fuel. The VVERs, which operate in many countries around the world, have a fine record for safety and reliability. Zaporizhzhia, the biggest nuclear station in Europe, has six VVER reactors, each of 950 MW capacity. (Koeberg has two PWR reactors of 920 MW each.)
The Russian intention seems to be to capture the nuclear station, not harm it. I don’t know where the Russians were aiming their shells but none seem to have hit the nuclear plant itself. A training centre caught fire, but whether from shells or not, I don’t know. (At Koeberg the training centre is just over one kilometre from the plant itself.) It seems the Russians are now giving orders to the Ukrainian nuclear operators. Reports keep changing, but the latest I’ve heard says that Unit 1 is down for maintenance, 2 and 3 have shut down, and the rest are running at low power. There has been no damage whatsoever to any reactor. Radiation levels are normal (very low and safe). But suppose the Russians had wanted to cause a major accident with their cannons. What would have happened?
At first sign of an attack on the reactors, all of them would have been shut down. In a matter of seconds, all fission would cease. All that would be left would be decay heat from radioactive materials in the reactor, which need to be cooled down over many weeks while the radioactivity dies away. The reactors are located inside a massive containment building with concrete walls over a metre thick, and enormous strands of steel reinforcing bar. The reactors themselves are very strong steel vessels. The chances of a shell from a tank penetrating both are essentially zero. The weakest point for the reactor would be its cooling. If the tanks could stop the cooling to the reactor, the fuel would melt down and you would have a release of radiation, but a contained one. It would probably be an accident like Three Mile Island in the USA in 1979, which harmed nobody.
On the political side, I am trying to read Putin’s mind, based on his many actions and his strange speech on 21 February this year. If I had to list his fears, resentments and intentions, I think it would go something like this. Russia was slighted and scorned by the West when the Soviet Empire collapsed in 1989. There was no sympathy for its peaceful surrender of power over its colonies in East Europe. The Warsaw Pact disbanded, and NATO, set up as a military force to oppose the Soviet Union, should have disbanded too. It didn’t, and expanded aggressively eastward in triumphalist fashion. Some NATO nations, including the USA, the UK and France, have a bloody record of violent intervention, including their catastrophic invasion of Iraq and their catastrophic overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in Libya. Russia has good reason to fear them. The Ukraine is hardly a gathering of angels. She has harboured some very unsavoury and corrupt characters in her chequered past, and is no model democracy. The Ukraine is to blame for the failure of the Minsk agreement, which would have seen some autonomy for the Russian-leaning Donbas region in the east. Even if all of this were true, it still cannot possibly justify Putin’s invasion. Perhaps if you had to ask him personally his reasons for invading, he would say, “How else could I get you to take me seriously? Everything I tried before failed.“ But I suppose another interpretation is that he is just another Great Russian imperialist, a budding new Tzar, happy that communism fell but unhappy that its Russian empire fell with it.
It looks as if the invasion was carefully planned, but was to be launched only if certain circumstances arose. They obviously did (whatever they were) and the invaders proceeded carefully, trying to minimize harm to civilians, although they certainly have caused a lot of harm and destruction. How far will it go? Will the Russians take over every nuclear power station in the Ukraine? Every power station in the Ukraine? Surely they can’t hope to take over the whole country, still less want to? That would mean years of guerrilla war with endless bloodshed and sorrow. What should the West do? The best thing Biden has done in his short, calamitous presidency is to make clear that the USA would not take part in any military action in the Ukraine. Thank heavens for that! Sanctions? They seem to be something you do when you feel you should do something, however futile or even harmful. In the end, there will have to be a negotiated settlement, probably with everybody signing the Minsk agreements in such a way that it doesn’t look as if they’ve been forced to do so – even if they have been.
Looming over all of these grim events in the Ukraine is a world energy crisis directly related to them. The crazy drive in Western countries towards solar and wind for electricity has seen electricity prices soaring and electricity failures increasing. Failure to develop fracking in Europe and failure to develop more oil and gas in the USA have seen the price of petrol and gas rocketing. All of this gives more power to Putin, with his enormous reserves of gas, on which Europe is becoming more and more dependent.
On the nuclear power front, the invasion will surely have done great harm to the international sales of Russia’s excellent VVER 1200 reactors, probably the best in the world. Finland has had long and reliable service from smaller VVERs, which have run very successfully for over 40 years. Then she tried a French EPR reactor, which proved a costly mistake, way over budget and way behind schedule. So she went back to the Russians and ordered a VVER 1200. Now, after the invasion, Finland says she will have to re-think whether to proceed with its construction.