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Europe's largest nuclear power plant is at risk

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The largest nuclear power plant in Europe sits on a river in Ukraine. The Zaporizhzhia plant itself and the site it's on has been occupied by Russia since early in its invasion since March. Three miles away, the other bank is still held by Ukrainian forces, and those forces accuse Russia of using a nuclear facility as cover, as a staging ground to launch strikes against Ukrainian territory. Russia, in turn, has blamed Ukraine for rocket attacks that have happened near the power plant. And as Ukrainian forces step up their counteroffensive to take back key parts of southern Ukraine, the potential for a nuclear catastrophe grows.

Olena Pareniuk is a senior researcher in the Institute for Safety Problems of Nuclear Power Plants of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

OLENA PARENIUK: Thank you very much for having me, and my pleasure to talk with you today.

SUMMERS: So, Olena, this power plant has been operated by Ukrainian employees, but it's now been under Russian control for months. Can you help us understand what the current situation there is now?

PARENIUK: The current situation is quite critical. Right now, actually, Ukrainian staff is operating nuclear power plant, as a nuclear power plant is a very sophisticated device to be operated. But the operation is ongoing under Russian command. The staff of Zaporizhzhia and their families are kept hostages. So staff who is actually working in the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, it is very difficult for them to concentrate on their work. And now, the siege of satellite of Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, it is being shelled by Russian forces. So quite a lot of citizens are evacuating themselves. So the amount of staff is decreasing because people are afraid for their lives.

SUMMERS: So as we're thinking about Zaporizhzhia, what could a worst-case scenario be?

PARENIUK: There are two huge accidents, and it is Chernobyl and Fukushima. Both of these scenarios are possible in Zaporizhzhia. The reason for Chernobyl accident was the lack of safety culture in the nuclear power plant, and also, that caused the mistake of the staff. So when we are talking about Zaporizhzhia right now, the staff is exhausted. So if they will make a mistake because of their tiredness, it might cause Chernobyl scenario.

And then we are coming to another scenario, which is Fukushima scenario. So right now, Zaporizhzhia is connected to Ukrainian grid by only one power line. And the power from the grid is necessary to power up the water pumps to cool down the reactor core. So if this one power line will be lost, then the diesel generators will start. But if the diesel generators run out of the fuel, it will cause the melt of the reactor core and the release of radionuclides into the environment, just as it happened in Fukushima.

SUMMERS: So, Olena, apart from a cease-fire around the plant, what could be done to prevent a disaster from happening?

PARENIUK: The complexity of the construction of the reactor requires the consolidation of the global community to actually control the situation around the nuclear power plant. International community should pay much more attention to controlling of all of these huge bureaucratic bodies that are taking care about the nuclear safety and security of the world. So we are already in a very tough situation, and it could have been prevented if the whole international community reacted earlier.

SUMMERS: That was Olena Pareniuk, a senior researcher in the Institute for Safety Problems of Nuclear Power Plants of National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. Olena, thank you for your time.

PARENIUK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Taylor Hutchison