IAEA – Nuclear Plant Safety in Ukraine "Far from Resolved"

  • IAEA – Nuclear Plant Safety in Ukraine “Far from Resolved”
  • Risks of Cyberattack On Ukraine Nuclear Plant Aired to EU Parliament
  • Update on Westinghouse Presence in Ukraine

IAEA – Nuclear Plant Safety in Ukraine “Far from Resolved”

IAEA chief Rafael Mariano Grossi said in a statement that the risk of a accident at a nuclear reactors in Ukraine is a major source of worry for the agency. He called the situation “far from being resolved.”

Grossi made his remarks at a hearing of the European Union Parliament.

iaea Dir Gen GrossiAccording to the IAEA Chief, (right) the agency’s main “preoccupation” are the Zaporizhia reactors, located at Ukraine’s largest nuclear power plant.

It has been occupied by Russian military troops for the past two months. Two of the six reactors at the site are still being operated by Energoatom which is Ukraine’s state owned nuclear utility.

The situation is far from stable. According to Grossi, Russian nuclear engineers from Rosatom are at the site, but “their function is not entirely clear.”

He said their presence “goes against every safety principle that we have” and creates the “potential for disagreement, for friction, for contradictory instruction,” and conflict between the Ukrainian plant operators and the Rosatom engineers.

Grossi added that with the Russians in control of Zaporizhia it isn’t possible for the Ukraine nuclear safety agency to verify the status of nuclear material at the plant which include spent nuclear fuel. IAEA experts currently don’t have access to the plant which means they can’t carry out the agency’s nuclear safeguard activities which include physical inventories and monitoring.

“Without that we cannot ensure to the international community where the nuclear material is or what’s happening with it,” he said.

“But when I’m confronted with a situation … where we have more than 30,000 kilograms of enriched uranium and a similar amount of plutonium and I cannot go and inspect the situation with this nuclear material, it is a very real danger and something that should be considered in all its seriousness.”

IAEA Chief Meets with Roastom Counterpart

The IAEA has been negotiating with the Russian forces for Grossi and a team to travel to the Zaporizhzhia plant, but progress in terms of arranging the trip has been slowed down by political and logistical hurdles.

On May 5th Grossi, met with Alexey Likhachev, Director General of Russian state nuclear company Rosatom, and other senior Russian officials in Istanbul, Turkey.

Rosatom said in a statement issued after the meeting, as reported by World Nuclear News,”The officials reviewed the entire agenda of the Russia-IAEA working relationship. In particular, the parties discussed in detail the matter of ensuring safety of nuclear facilities in Ukraine under current complicated circumstances.”

It said the two men “paid particular attention to the state of affairs” at Zaporizhia “including taking into account the IAEA director general’s intention to organize a technical mission of the IAEA specialists to this NPP.

In turn, when discussing the aforementioned range of issues, Alexey Likhachev stressed ensuring safe operation of nuclear installations in the broadest sense possible was an absolute priority for the Russian side and for the Russian nuclear industry. The parties agreed to continue regular contacts.”

Update on IAEA Actions in Chernobyl

Separately, Grossi said that the situation at the Chernobyl nuclear plant “appears to be stabilized.” He added that a team of IAEA experts will travel to the plant in the near future.

On April 28th the Washington Post reported “Rafael Mariano Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said that the levels of radiation in areas excavated by Russian soldiers near the Chernobyl nuclear site were elevated but that they still fell well within the limits for workers’ annual exposure.”

Grossi said that radioactivity levels at the Chernobyl area were “at normal,” but that the Russian military occupation of Chernobyl in the first weeks of the war was anything but routine. “I don’t know if we were very close to disaster, but the situation was absolutely abnormal and very, very dangerous,” he said.

The IAEA tested areas around the Chernobyl plant where Russian soldiers dug trenches and established camp sites. He said “I would say it was not a good thing. I wouldn’t recommend anybody to start excavating a place known to be subject to high levels of radiation.”

Primary isotopes around the plant include cesium and strontium. In terms of the method of assessing exposures by Russian troops to the radioactivity in the disturbed soil around the plant, e.g., time, distance, and shielding, it isn’t know how long the Russian soldiers were exposed, but since they dug up the soil, distance is a likely less than a foot, and, of course, there was no shielding. The soldiers would have likely inhaled some of the radioactive particles they disturbed and ingested them via while eating their food in the trenches.

According to the newspaper Grossi said that while the radiation levels were only a third as high as the established limit, the spot where Russian soldiers had dug trenches was “clearly not a place to have a picnic.”

ukraine reactors

Regarding the country’s 15 operational reactors at four NPPs, the IAEA said seven are currently connected to the grid, including two at the Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhya NPP, two at the Rivne NPP, two at the South Ukraine NPP, and one at the Khmelnytskyy NPP. The eight other reactors are shut down for regular maintenance or held in reserve. Safety systems remain operational at the four NPPs, and they also continue to have off-site power available.

& & &

Risks of Cyberattack On Ukraine Nuclear Plant Aired

(NucNet) The gravest concern about Russia’s impact on nuclear risk is that Moscow might intentionally carry out a cyberattack or a physical attack against a nuclear power plant, thereby unleashing a severe accident, Mark Hibbs, a senior fellow in the Carnegie think-tank’s nuclear policy program told British MPs. (Full text – PDF file)

Mr. Hibbs, who specializes in nuclear verification and safeguards and international nuclear cooperation, said this potential threat must be taken seriously, because Russia has carried out indiscriminate ground and air attacks upon civil infrastructure aimed at Ukraine’s population, and because cyberwarfare against targets in Ukraine including electric power grid installations and systems have been widely attributed to Russian actors and interests.

Cyber security and protection word tag cloud. 3D rendering, blue English variant.

In evidence presented to a UK parliamentary roundtable on the Ukraine crisis, Hibbs said there is no record documenting specific cyberattacks against Ukrainian nuclear power reactors, but there are accounts attesting to nearly a decade of cyberwarfare against Ukraine’s electric power grid. Hibbs said it is not known how well-protected Ukraine’s nuclear power plants are from a cyberattack. For instance, are the control room electronics physically separated from the Internet and all other non-safety related computer systems in the plant, e.g., business, admin, etc.?

A cyberattack against a nuclear power plant could involve malware taking control of an installation’s control room operating systems. It could involve use of malware to destabilize the reactor by imitatating normal operation, and fool the plant operators to conclude that they do not need to intervene. Te result could be a dangerous disruption of plant operations. If the attack succeeds, operators may lose control of the plant and not be able to detect or effectively respond to an externally instigated event that could develop into a severe accident.

All of Ukraine’s nuclear reactors are Russian supplied and built VVERs. Ukraine has 15 Russian-design commercial nuclear power reactors  (See table below) at four locations generating about half of its electricity; seven units are currently in operation.

Russia has full knowledge about the design and operation of nuclear power plant control systems and any software for operating and protecting Ukraine’s nuclear plants that had been installed at the time of power plant construction and initial operation. If Russia wanted to find and exploit a software security vulnerability, it has the schematics and code to find one. It would have to risk the outcome, which might be a major nuclear accident, against the justification for the tactic.

reactors ukraine

Hibbs said there may be insiders in the plant organizations who might be in a position to facilitate a cyberattack and while that is real threat, he also warned that Russia may be unfamiliar with upgraded software and equipment installed after operation of the reactors began, especially during the last decade. However, assuming the Russians supplied the software upgrades, they would have technical details on them.

Hibbs told MPs that barring other specific information about Russia’s military aims, it “would not appear likely” that Russia would intentionally destroy a nuclear power plant in Ukraine because doing that would have no military or strategic utility and might result in a radiological contamination of Russian territory. The UNSCEAR reports on the extent of radioactive contamination from the Chernobyl accident shows several areas inside Russia and Belarus impacted by radiological contamination from the  accident.  In short, a successful cybersecurity attack on a Ukraine nuclear power plant could backfire in a catastrophic and unpredictable manner.

chernobyl radiation map

Maps of Radionuclide Deposition from Chernobyl Accident – UNSCEAR

The main concerns are that Russian forces may attack or wrest control of nuclear power reactors, directly or indirectly, as a result of indiscriminate artillery fire, cause a serious or severe nuclear accident, or take other actions that may result in the exposure of Ukraine’s population to ionizing radiation.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th, Russia has validated these concerns by shelling a nuclear research institute in Kharkiv and by attacking, overrunning and occupying Europe’s biggest nuclear power station at Zaporizhzhia. Russian is now in control of that plant which the IAEA says is “an unstable” situation.

Should the war continue unabated for a year or longer, other nuclear threats may emerge. These risks are that civilian population will be exposed to radiological sources that may be dispersed and broken by Russian air and artillery attacks on industry installations and hospitals.

The sources are robust stainless steel capsules about the size of a small coin or a needle which contain radioactive material – typically Cobalt-60, Cesium-137, Americium-241 or Radium-226. Each capsule is designed to have a recommended working life of 10 to 15 years and is licensed to a specific owner for a specific use.

While some sources like Americium-241 are in wide use especially in household smoke detectors, Cobalt-60 is a gamma emitter and ingestion and/or inhalation can result in cancer. External exposure to large amounts of Cesium-137 can cause burns, acute radiation sickness and even death. Exposure to such a large amount could come from the mishandling of a strong industrial source of Cesium-137.

News media reports indicate that in their looting of the Chernobyl plant, Russian forces removed radioactive sources from the site but later abandoned them elsewhere in Ukraine. It isn’t clear what the condition is of the radioactive sources that were abandoned by Russian forces, e.g., whether the sealed sources were damaged or otherwise opened allowing radiation to potentially affect anyone coming near them.

Also, all of the reactors that Ukraine operates will over time require maintenance, refueling, and transport of equipment, personnel, and nuclear material.

  • Movements of unirradiated irradiated enriched uranium fuel may be targeted by Russian forces;
  • Attacks could interrupt supply of equipment and fuel to their destinations;
  • Should irradiated fuel be dispersed, radiation-emitting materials would threaten the environment and the civilian population.

All of Ukraine’s nuclear reactors are pressurized water reactors (PWRs). Most were built during the 1980s and 1990s. The 30-year operating licenses for Ukraine’s PWRs have been or will probably be extended, permitting most of them to continue operating through the 2020s and beyond.

Especially during the last decade Ukraine’s nuclear power plants have been back fitted and upgraded with modern, mostly Western equipment and engineering systems. The oldest units, Rivne-1 and -2 in northwestern Ukraine, date from the 1970s. Unlike the rest of Ukraine’s power reactors these are not equipped with reinforced concrete-steel containments and are therefore more vulnerable to the threat of a severe accident with off-site radiological consequences especially if one of Russia’s military actions engages in random  artillery or missile attacks in and around a nuclear plant.

Update on Westinghouse in Ukraine

In recent years EnergoAtom has shift its acquisition of fuel for the reactors from Rosatom to Westinghouse for several of its reactors. Rosatom, which had until this change in fuel suppliers took place, regarded Ukraine as a captive market. It complained that Westinghouse would not be able to make the fuel for the VVERs, but it did and the fuel has worked as specified. World Nuclear News reported that the deal was updated in 2020.

Westinghouse now supplies about half the nuclear fuel used by Ukraine’s Russian built reactors. Westinghouse began supplying fuel to Ukraine in 2005.  The six units using VVER-1000 reactor fuel assemblies manufactured by Westinghouse are South Ukraine 2 and 3, and Zaporozhe 1, 3, 4 and 5. (Fact Sheet – PDF file)

Plan for New Reactors

In November 2021 Westinghouse announced that it signed a contract with Energoatom, the state-owned nuclear utility of Ukraine, to build five 1150 MWe AP1000 reactors at four separate sites in Ukraine. Four of the units will be new and one will complete a partially built reactor at the Khmelnytskyi Nuclear Power Plant.

The deal, with an estimated value of about $30 billion, initiates engineering and procurement of long-lead items for the first Westinghouse AP1000 unit to be built at the Khmelnytskyi site.

Other sites where future AP1000s will be built, presumably under extensions of this initial agreement, include current nuclear power stations – Rovno, South Ukraine, and Zaporozhye. At the Khmelnitski site, the company will complete Unit #4 and build a new Unit #5. Localization for the plants will be 60% according to EnergoAtom.

Financial terms were not announced and both the US EximBank and the US Department of Energy declined to comment on the deal. Since hostilities began in February the deal has been on hold.

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