by: Evgenia Prodaeva
Can "a nuclear explosion like in Chornobyl," the world's worst nuclear accident, now occur at Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant after the June 6, 2023, explosion that destroyed the Kakhovka dam emptied most of the reservoir used to cool down the plant's reactors? No, that's not true: Zaporizhzhia's six power units shut down in 2022, and no longer generate enough heat to require the same level of cooling, nuclear experts say. Both the International Atomic Energy Agency and Energoatom, the state-run Ukrainian company that monitors the plant, have stated that Zaporizhzhia has enough water for its current needs. Other nuclear experts agree, calling comparisons with Chornobyl or Japan's Fukushima "both inaccurate and misleading."
The claim that a lack of water could cause an accident at Zaporizhzhia akin to the 1986 Chornobyl disaster appeared in a 12-second video on TikTok (archived here) on June 9, 2023, three days after the destruction of the Kakhovka dam. (The disaster site is also called "Chernobyl," based on the Russian spelling.) The video's initial graphic asserted:
Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant can't take water from Kakhovka dam to cool down already
The next graphic added:
This power plant is in total control of Russia, and because of the lack of the resourses to cool down there can be a nuclear explosion like in Chornobyl
(Source: Tiktok.com screenshot taken on Tues July 25 16:22:43 2023 UTC)
Before Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, water from the Kakhovka reservoir in southern Ukraine cooled the reactors within the six power units at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Europe's largest such facility. The June 6, 2023, explosion of the dam at the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant caused the reservoir to lose most of its water, however.
But Zaporizhzhia, under Russian occupation since March 2022, does not have the same need for water as in the past. None of the plant's six power units have been in full operation since September 2022, according to Energoatom, which oversees all nuclear facilities in Ukraine. (As of July 29, 2023, power unit 4 was on "hot shutdown," meaning that hot water is still taken As a result, the cooling pond is not actively evaporating, Energoatom reported on its website on the day of the explosion. (Translated by Lead Stories from Ukrainian):
Both the pond at the ZNPP and the so-called basin bowls ... maintain the normal water level that they had before the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Station dam was blown up.
The power units of the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant have been out of operation since September 2022. Therefore, there has been no active evaporation from the cooling pond and no need to replenish it yet.
The water available is enough for the Zaporizhzhia plant to be safely out of operation for 12 years, Energoatom President Petro Kotin told the Glavkom news site on June 19, 2023.
The drop in water levels in the Kakhovka reservoir does not directly affect the water level in the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant's cooling pond, the Energoatom statement added. In a June 9, 2023, interview with Radio Svoboda, the Ukrainian-language service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Kotin explained that Zaporizhzhia's cooling pond was built deliberately as a separate structure from the Kakhkovka reservoir to avoid damage to the plant from any problem at the reservoir.
Kotin noted that, in case the cooling pond's water does evaporate, backup options include pumping water from what remains of the reservoir or from wells on the site of the Zaporizhzhia plant (translated by Lead Stories from Ukrainian):
There are other sources [of water -- Lead Stories ed.] that you are talking about. These include mobile pumping units that are now available at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, which can be deployed and can, if necessary, pump additional water from the places where it will remain in the Kakhovka reservoir and in the underwater channels to the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant.
And the final frontier (final option - Lead Stories ed.) is the use of underground drinking-water wells. They can also be used by the pumps available at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant to raise the level (of water) if it goes down.
Energoatom, which posts on its website nearly daily updates about the power plant's water levels, reported on August 2, 2023, that "a slight decrease" had occurred in the cooling pond. Nonetheless, the company described the pond's water level as "stable" -- the status of each water update since the June 6, 2023, explosion at Kakhovka.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported on July 12, 2023, that its team had visited the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and concluded that, despite natural evaporation, "sufficient water is stored on the site for several months." The IAEA did not question the appropriateness or effectiveness of the plans to secure additional water sources if needed.
(Source: Iaea.org screenshot taken on Thurs July 27 13:59:12, 2023 UTC)
Outspoken in its warnings about the war's threats to the Zaporizhzhia plant, the IAEA has not warned that the Kakhovka dam explosion could lead to a disaster similar to the April 26, 1986, explosion at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant in Soviet-controlled Ukraine. That explosion spewed radiation across some 58,000 square miles, led to the evacuation of roughly 100,000 nearby residents and to the immediate deaths of at least 31 people, according to research findings.
On June 27, 2023, the head of the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine, Oleh Korikov, also dismissed the possibility that damage to the Zaporizhzhia plant would replicate the Chornobyl disaster, Radio Svoboda reported.
Without a working reactor, Zaporizhzhia has a "quite small" release of residual heat from its shutdown reactors and no expected aerosol impact on the surrounding area and population, Korikov said -- the exact opposite of what occurred at Chornobyl, he recalled. (Translated by Lead Stories from Ukrainian) The reactors themselves are another key difference, he continued.
Here, at the ZNPP (Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant -- Lead Stories ed.), we have shell-type reactors. There is both a reactor shell and a hermetic envelope, which provide barriers to the spread of radiation products into the environment.
Oleksiy Tolkachov, the former chairman of the agency's Public Council, a community-run group that advises the plant's management and monitors its activites, noted on Facebook on June 8, 2023, that Zaporizhzhia's VVER reactors, made of reinforced concrete, "must withstand both a light aircraft falling outside [the reactor] and an internal explosion, an accident and the release of radioactive materials." (Translated by Lead Stories from Ukrainian)
On July 5, 2023, the American Nuclear Society, a nuclear-sciences outreach organization, commented that, even in case of a breach, "any potential release of radiological material" at the Zaporizhzhia plant (ZNPP) would be restricted to the immediate area surrounding the reactors." It concluded:
In this regard, any comparison between ZNPP and "Chernobyl" or "Fukushima" is both inaccurate and misleading.
Additional Lead Stories fact checks related to the war between Russia and Ukraine are available here and also in Ukrainian.
-This fact check is an adaptation of Lead Stories' July 21, 2023, Ukrainian-language fact check "Запорізька АЕС НЕ втратила можливість охолоджуватись після підриву Каховської ГЕС" by Evgenia Prodaeva.