“The night could have stopped the course of history: the history of Ukraine and the history of Europe,” President Zelensky said in his recent speech after the Russian attack on the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant. Alarmist or not, the truth is that There is no precedent for what happened: a bombardment on the site of a nuclear power plant. And even less one that big. Which makes many wonder if Russia has raised the bar in its offenses, because Zaporizhia is not Ukraine’s only centre-back.
The night could have ended in a tragedy of enormous proportions for the entire continent. “The safety systems of the six reactors of the power plant have not been affected and there has been no release of radioactive material”, declared, to everyone’s great relief, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Argentine Rafael Mariano Grossi.
Because, if the opposite happens, we could be talking about a big nuclear accident. The Zaporizhia plant is one of the largest in the world and the largest in Europe. It is equipped with six WWER-1000 type reactors and a total power of 6000 MW. The radioactive cloud that it could cause would be devastating.
The role of Zaporizhia in Putin’s military strategy
“No other country except Russia has ever fired on nuclear power plants”, has denounced the Ukrainian president, who has accused Putin of resorting to ‘nuclear terror’. But it is unlikely that the Russian president’s objective was simply to cause panic in the population or destroy the plant.
After all, Zaporizhia it is closer to Moscow – just over 1,000 kilometers – than to Berlin or Warsaw, to give some examples. In the event of a nuclear accident caused by an attack, the radioactive cloud could – depending on the winds – discharge its effects earlier in the Russian capital than in the German one. To play such a risk by putting his own country in real danger just for the sake of a coup seems excessive even for him.
However, the nuclear power plant does play an important role in Putin’s military strategy. And even more so in one that resorts to siege as part of the conquest mechanism. We have seen it these days. For now, the only major Ukrainian city in the hands of Russian forces is Kherson, with 300,000 inhabitants. But others like Kharkiv, Mariupol, Odessa or Kiev itself are in the target. In this phase of the offensive, the Kremlin focuses its efforts on them, since their control would make it possible to strangle the Ukrainians’ logistics.
And control over access to electricity is a tactic that Russia has already used in these days of war. Just this week it has destroyed the power plant in Okhtyrka, leaving that town without electricity. Also in the siege of Mariupol, the Russian army left the city without electricity for hours.
Objective: cut off the power supply
The control of nuclear power plants would be essential. Especially the Zaporizhia plant, which supplies 25% of Ukraine’s electricity. Despite the fact that the Ukrainian government has been working since 2017 on plans that allow for greater energy independence (such as putting its electricity grid on the same frequency as the European Network of Electricity Transmission Network Operators), controlling Zaporizhia would allow the Russians to control the electricity reaching the bastions of the Ukrainian resistance, And not just from the south.
Also, when taking Zaporizhia, the Ukrainian government could be forced to turn off the rest of the nuclear power plants, which provide 50% of its electricity supply. According to the nuclear energy expert Marcel Cordech, quoted by the Efe agency, this would mean “a total blackout because Ukraine has already unplugged from the Russian power grid but has not yet managed to connect to the European one”, since these changes require time, for For days, the country has been operating as an independent system and is left “to its fate.”
Thus, controlling the electricity supply would allow Russia to suffocate its enemy. The issue is the great risk that has been run to achieve this goal in the country that is still suffering from the terrible aftermath of the Chernobyl accident.
The ghost of Chernobyl
After the unprecedented attack on Zaporizhia, that name has come to the minds of many. And a date: that of that April 26, 1986, when the explosion of reactor number four at the plant triggered a nuclear accident that released into the atmosphere radioactivity equivalent to between 100 and 500 atomic bombs like the one in Hiroshima. According to calculations by Ukrainian experts, recalls EFE, the accident claimed the lives of more than 100,000 people.
President Zelenski has pointed out that an accident in Zaporiya would have caused “six chernobyls”. exaggerated or notit would have been a tragedy of enormous proportions, difficult to calculate. The fire that broke out in the complex after the bombing has now been extinguished. The greatest risk appears to have passed, as Moscow blames Ukrainian “sabotage” for being responsible.
But they are still in Ukraine three other plants, with another nine reactors, so the IAEA has already called for an agreement to remove them from the battlefront. Because the risk is too high for everyone.