Experts are warning ahead of an anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive against invading Russian forces that continued fighting heightens the risk of a continent-wide calamity emanating from the occupied Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant—and necessitates immediate efforts to negotiate a ceasefire followed by a peace treaty to end the war.
Ukraine's state-owned atomic energy company, Energoatom, said Wednesday that Russia intends to relocate roughly 3,100 people from the city of Enerhodar—2,700 of whom work at the Zaporizhzhia plant in Russia-controlled southern Ukraine—and warned that such a move would lead to a "catastrophic lack of qualified personnel."
Since March 2022, Europe's largest nuclear facility has been held by Russian troops and operated by a mostly Ukrainian workforce, with periodic escalations in fighting around the plant resulting in repeated losses of offsite power that threaten to cause a disastrous meltdown.
The evacuation plan, which applies to roughly half of the plant's 6,000 employees, was prompted by fears of an imminent Ukrainian campaign to reclaim lost territory, including in Zaporizhzhia, one of four regions illegally annexed by Russia. It comes just days after a Moscow-installed official said that more than 1,600 civilians had been evacuated from areas near the plant.
As local civilian evacuations began last weekend amid intensified shelling, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director-general Rafael Grossi expressed concerns about the "increasingly tense, stressful, and challenging conditions" faced by Zaporizhzhia plant staff and warned of an "increasingly unpredictable and potentially dangerous" situation unfolding.
"A major assault on Zaporizhzhia, or even a prolonged loss of power, could lead to a catastrophe that would dwarf the impact of Chernobyl."
The head of the United Nations' nuclear power watchdog, who has spent months trying to persuade Russian and Ukrainian officials to establish a demilitarized zone around the site, called for immediate action "to prevent the threat of a severe nuclear accident and its associated consequences for the population and the environment."
Although all six nuclear reactors at the Zaporizhzhia plant have been shut down since September, they still require a constant supply of electricity to keep spent nuclear fuel rods cool and prevent a meltdown of the kind that devastated Chernobyl, roughly 400 miles away, some 37 years ago.
On Monday, the Moscow-installed governor of the Russia-controlled part of Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia region reportedly suspended operations at the plant. According toThe Associated Press, "Russians have laid minefields around the plant and built defensive positions."
In a Wednesday statement, Beyond Nuclear said that just because "all six Zaporizhzhia reactors are currently shut down... does not mean they are out of danger."
"The fuel in the reactor core still requires electricity to power cooling, as do the pumps that supply cooling water to the fuel pools," said the group's international specialist, Linda Pentz Gunter. "A meltdown is still possible. Putting the reactors in what is termed 'cold shutdown' just buys workers more time to restore power, but a reliable supply of electricity to the site is still essential to avoid disaster."
"It is time for the United States to step up efforts toward a negotiated peace agreement rather than helping to prolong a likely unwinnable war."
"The consequences not only for the people of Ukraine and neighboring Russia, but for all of Europe, should any or all of these reactors melt down or suffer a fuel pool fire are unimaginably dire," Gunter warned.
"We only have to look at the fallout map from the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, a single unit with a far smaller radioactive inventory, to understand the potential scale of such a tragedy," she added.
Experts have repeatedly sounded the alarm about the growing risk of a continental-scale catastrophe, noting that the Zaporizhzhia plant contains more radioactive waste than was present at Chernobyl when it exploded.
That nuclear accident in what is now Ukraine "contaminated 40% of the European landmass with long-lived radioactive fallout," Beyond Nuclear pointed out. The meltdown rendered an area of more than 1,000 square miles uninhabitable and caused the illnesses and deaths of potentially hundreds of thousands of people.
"A major assault on Zaporizhzhia, or even a prolonged loss of power, could lead to a catastrophe that would dwarf the impact of Chernobyl," said Gunter.
"Despite the seeming entrenchment from both Ukraine and Russia, it is time for the United States to step up efforts toward a negotiated peace agreement rather than helping to prolong a likely unwinnable war," she added. "The stakes are simply too high."