Zaporizhia is one of Ukraine’s four active nuclear plants. It has six reactors, each with the capacity to produce 1000 MW, and was built at the same time as Chernobyl, with Soviet-era reactors.
Oleh Dudar, head of operations, joined the plant in 1986 – the year of the Chernobyl catastrophe.
Oleh Dudar: “The disaster that happened at the Chernobyl plant cannot happen here because we have shell-type tank reactors. And there is also a so-called ‘containment’ above each reactor. ln case of emergency, this containment will not allow radioactive substances to leak, whereas Chernobyl’s reactor had only some reinforced concrete slabs. It didn’t prevent the release of radiation.”
The enclosure in question is a red and grey dome on top of each nuclear power plant unit. The domes can reportedly withstand an aircraft crash and a major earthquake. Workers say they did not worry when the conflict in eastern Ukraine started, 300 km away.
In fact, the plant’s management is so certain of the power units’ safety systems that it decided to extend the lifetime of two of them.
A chief engineer at the plant explains how the units are being upgraded in order to operate for another ten years.
Serhiy Hurin, deputy chief engineer of energy repair,Zaporizhia: “It’s much cheaper to upgrade and extend the lifetime of an old power unit than to build a new one. The units that went through their lifecycles can be upgraded, their equipment can be replaced, and their lifetimes can be extended.”
The project is financially backed by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and by Euratom, the EU’s nuclear agency.
In Kyiv, ecologists have their doubts as to whether the upgrades are being done according to the highest standards.
A member of the National Ecological Center of Ukraine worries whether the lifetime of an old unit can be safely extended.
Oleksiy Pasyuk, National Ecological Center of Ukraine:“Nuclear power can’t be safe and secure because of its technology risks. And if the nuclear power plant unit works over its lifetime, it means that a part of its equipment is deteriorated – not every element can be replaced. This increases the risk of an accident.”
He also questions the technical security of the reactor and its containment during a military conflict.
Pasyuk: “When the calculations were made there was one perception of what type of aircraft may cause problems, but since then the world has changed, and there are large intercontinental Boeings. If you look at the risk estimations made in Ukraine 15 years ago, you’ll see that they didn’t count for military action. And now it becomes a problem.”
While the international community helped finance a safe-confinement structure to seal radioactive reactor number 4, the legacy of Chernobyl continues to haunt Europe.
And for many Ukrainians, nothing can repair the scars of the 1986 catastrophe.