A little more than a week later, Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, Europe’s biggest, was also attacked and overrun by the Russian army.
The shelling of some of its facilities caused a fire to break out, but no increase in radiation was reported. Meanwhile, at Chernobyl, near the border with Belarus, early reports of a spike in radiation were attributed to heavy military equipment stirring up contaminated soil near the site.
The attacks triggered widespread alarm. The International Atomic Energy Agency expressed “grave concern” about the security of Ukraine’s nuclear sites, warning that the fundamental principles of safely operating such facilities had been violated at the two captured sites. And, as President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned of a looming nuclear disaster, people across Europe with memories of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster rushed to buy iodine tablets to take in case of radiation exposure.
On March 10, IAEA chief Rafael Grossi flew to the Turkish city of Antalya to meet Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba. Grossi put forward a “framework to ensure the safety and security of nuclear facilities in Ukraine”, but it remained unclear whether the two sides agreed to it.
While nuclear experts say a nuclear incident on the scale of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster is unlikely, they warn that the fighting in Ukraine does pose a threat to its nuclear sites.
With a well-developed nuclear energy infrastructure, Ukraine is the world’s seventh-biggest producer of nuclear energy. Some 55 percent of the electricity it produces is nuclear, generated by four nuclear plants.
The fifth one, Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, had its last functioning reactor shut down in 2000. The decommissioned plant, however, needs daily maintenance as a number of safety systems are still in place and spent fuel is still stored at the site.