Russia: The presence of 15 nuclear reactors in Ukraine aggravates the risks of the conflict | International

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After France and Slovakia, Ukraine is the country in the world that most relies on nuclear energy to meet its electricity demand. In 2020, more than 50% of its electricity came from its 15 reactors. As the Russian invasion advances and the confrontations approach the atomic facilities, the concern of international organizations grows due to the risk of triggering a radioactive accident with catastrophic consequences. Ukraine has experience: in April it will be 36 years since the Chernobyl disaster, the most serious nuclear accident in history.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been closely monitoring the situation since the outbreak of the conflict. And in his reports he warns: there is a "very real risk that facilities with radioactive material will suffer damage during the conflict, with potentially serious consequences for human health and the environment." “I make an urgent and strong appeal to all parties to refrain from any military or other action that could threaten the security of these facilities,” the IAEA director general, Argentine Rafael Mariano Grossi, asked this Sunday. On Monday, in the face of reports pointing to the advance of Russian troops near the country's largest nuclear power plant, located in Zaporizhia, Grossi insisted on his warnings: "It is extremely important that nuclear power plants do not put themselves at risk of any shape".

The State Inspectorate for Nuclear Regulation of Ukraine (SNRIU) reported over the weekend the impact of missiles on the facilities of a radioactive waste center in Kiev, although without damage to the building or indications of a toxic release. In addition, according to the IAEA, the Kiev branch of the specialized state company Radon was attacked, forcing its staff to take refuge overnight from Saturday to Sunday. "These facilities often contain disused radioactive sources and other low-level waste from hospitals and industries," explains the IAEA.

The concerns do not focus so much on the radioactive waste facilities but on the 15 active reactors (spread across four plants) that Ukraine has. The IAEA is following with "special attention" the "technological and physical security of its nuclear reactors" in operation.

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The fighting in southern Ukraine is drawing closer to the city of Zaporizhia, home to the country's and Europe's largest nuclear power plant. Both forces dispute control of this plant, according to Reuters. While the Russian authorities claim to have taken over the site, the Ukrainian company that manages the facilities denies this and claims that it continues to supply electricity to the entire country. The plant has six reactors and has a capacity of 5,700 megawatts —Almaraz, the largest in Spain, is 1,100 megawatts—.

The IAEA said on Monday that the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry had informed it that "Russian forces were operational near the facility, but had not entered" the plant yet. Grossi stressed that any military or other action that could threaten the plant's security must be avoided.

There were already clashes in the Chernobyl exclusion zone at the beginning of the invasion. The Ukrainian government reported on Thursday an increase in radiation levels in the area, which was attributed to the passage of heavy military vehicles that removed the contaminated soil. The IAEA clarified that "radiation readings remained low and posed no danger to the public." In addition, the facilities continued to operate normally this weekend.

The IAEA and the European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group (ENSREG) held a meeting with the Ukrainian regulator on Sunday. After the meeting, ENSREG issued a statement condemning the Russian invasion and called for "maximum moderation, to avoid any action that could put the country's nuclear facilities at risk." This coordinating group, of which the Spanish Nuclear Safety Council (CSN) is a part, expressed its "great concern" about missile attacks directly from the Chernobyl exclusion zone. And he expressed similar concern about the rest of the country's nuclear facilities. This organization called for plant personnel to be allowed to “exercise their regulatory responsibilities for nuclear safety at all nuclear sites in the country”.

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