Fighting in southern Ukraine raises concerns over nuclear plant occupied by Russian forces

Ukrainian forces launched a counteroffensive to retake territory in the south currently occupied by Russian invaders. Fighting near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant has raised concerns that the facility could be damaged in the crossfire. Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists, joined Nick Schifrin to discuss the risks.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Since March, Russia has occupied the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and a large section of Southern Ukraine. A counteroffensive announced by Kyiv today aims to seize some of that territory back.

    Nick Schifrin reports.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The images are grainy, but the message is clear: Ukraine is trying to liberate Russian-held territory. Ukraine officials said troops broke through Russia's first-line of defense and seized abandoned Russian ammunition.

    Spokeswoman Natalia Humeniuk spoke through an interpreter.

  • Natalia Humeniuk, Spokesperson, Ukrainian Southern Command (through translator):

    Our preliminary activities were successful. We destroyed many of their war houses of the ammunition, destroyed lots of their air defense.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ukraine's targets are Russian forces, who currently occupy nearly 20 percent of the country's south and east. Today's offensive appears to focus on the Kherson region, especially west of the Dnipro River and the city of Kherson. Kherson city was captured during the initial invasion with the help of Russian tanks that left occupied Crimea.

    Early on, Kherson residents demonstrated and even stopped Russian military vehicles with the power of their protest. But Russian forces silenced all dissent and launched what Ukrainian officials call a campaign of terror. Many residents fled and became internally displaced people, or IDPs, as the mayor of nearby Kryvyi Rih told us in May.

    Oleksandr Vilkul, Mayor of Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine (through translator): The IDPs who come here are running from hell. The information we received from people in occupied territories, executions, torture and rape are the standard practice.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For the last few weeks, Ukraine has been using long-range American weapons to strike behind Russian front lines at bridges and ammunition used by Russian troops in Kherson to set the stage for today's assault.

    Jennifer Cafarella, Institute for the Study of War: With that concentration of firepower and direct ground assaults on front line positions that marks the start of the actual ground defensive, taking advantage of those conditions in the rear areas behind the front line that Ukraine has set so far.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Jennifer Cafarella is the national security fellow at the Institute of the Study of War, a think tank that produces daily war updates.

    She says Ukraine is trying to make progress before Russia can run a repeat of the 2014 Crimea referendum and declare Southern Ukraine annexed and before high natural gas prices caused by the invasion could erode support in Western Europe.

  • Jennifer Cafarella:

    The need to demonstrate to the West that Ukraine can launch a counteroffensive, I think that's essential for continuing to bolster Western resolve to support Ukraine heading into what will likely be a difficult winter for many in Europe, given the pressure of Russia will attempt to place on NATO unity during those cold winter months.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Northeast of Kherson, fighting continues near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, raising concerns that the facility could be damaged in the crossfire.

    To discuss those risks, we turn to Ed Lyman, director of nuclear power safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a think tank and advocacy organization.

    Ed Lyman, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    The IAEA says it's going to inspect at Zaporizhzhia the physical damage, the plant safety systems and the condition of the staff. Can they accomplish that just in a few days?

    Edwin Lyman, Union of Concerned Scientists: Well, obviously, they won't be able to see everything they need to see. They will have to sample.

    But if — provided the Russians do not obstruct their mission, they should be able to get a very good snapshot of the state of the plant at this time.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And how much do you feel confident that they can accomplish, given this is a technical organization, and the problem fundamentally is about Russia's occupation of the plant and the ongoing fighting around the plant?

  • Edwin Lyman:

    Yes, well, obviously, the political and the military context are very difficult, but you shouldn't underestimate the importance of having this mission be able to travel to the site and to succeed.

    And even if the IAEA is not allowed to see everything they need to see or go where they need to go. That information that the Russians are obstructing will also be very important for the international community, and may help turn the tide and increase the political pressure on Russia to stand down from using this facility as a military shield.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Let's talk about some of what the IAEA will be examining and the risks to the plant itself.

    Late last week, the plant temporarily lost electricity, forcing it to rely on backup generators. How dangerous was that moment? And, in general, how dangerous is that risk?

  • Edwin Lyman:

    Well, nuclear plants are very vulnerable to a loss of electrical power. So that's one of the worst things that can happen. If they lose both off-site power and their on-site backup power, then an operating reactor could start melting down within hours.

    So, the time window is very short. So, any time these levels of defense, multiple backup electrical systems start to be challenged, then you're taking the plant closer to the risk of a crisis. And that's why you have to avoid that at all costs and make sure those backup systems are functional and available.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Mostly because of that incident and because of that risk that you just described to the backup systems, the spokesman for the National Security Council said today that a — quote — "controlled shutdown" of the nuclear power plant would — quote — "be the safest and least risky option in the near term."

    What's your reaction to that statement?

  • Edwin Lyman:

    Well, it's certainly true that a nuclear reactor that is shut down, especially after a few days, is safer than one that's operating in the event that there is something like a loss of power.

    The time window to react to provide cooling to the fuel is longer. But, of course, that — you have to balance that against the potential need for the power from these reactors for Ukraine, because not having electrical power is also a health and safety issue. So, it's a tough call.

    But probably at this point, when the tensions are at their peak, a temporary shutdown might be advisable.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And let's talk about the physical risks to the plant.

    The U.S. says Ukraine has used the plant as a base from which to launch attacks on — sorry — Russia has used the plant as a base to launch attack — attacks on nearby Ukrainian forces. How much of a risk is there to the plant because of these ongoing explosions that we're seeing inside the property of the plant?

  • Edwin Lyman:

    Well, this is a very disturbing use of a civilian nuclear facility as a military facility.

    And if Russia is using it as a shield, essentially betting that the Ukrainians are not going to directly attack it because of the risk, and giving the Russians free rein to use it as a launching pad for attacks, that's a very dangerous game.

    Now, the nuclear plants are resilient. The level of shelling that's already occurred has not apparently caused serious damage to the safety systems. But that could change at any moment.

    And the big issue here is uncertainty. When you're operating a nuclear power plant, you don't want to have uncertainty. You want to have the conditions as controllable as possible. And, certainly, having this plant in the middle of the war zone just violates that principle and makes it very hard to predict how things will turn out.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, finally, the risk to the staff itself.

    Today, Ukraine's state nuclear authority warned that Russia was increasing its pressure on the Ukrainian staff that are operating this plant, the staff, by the way, that was already operating it, literally under gunpoint.

    In about the 45 seconds we have left, Ed Lyman, what kind of risk is it when you have a staff operating a nuclear plant literally under gunpoint?

  • Edwin Lyman:

    Well, you can't underestimate the importance of having a staff that is well-rested, can operate without undue stress to be able to carry out the activities, both under normal and emergency conditions.

    So these accounts of Russian intimidation are very disturbing. Hopefully, the IAEA will be able to get a sense of the truth behind these and the capabilities of the staff to carry out their duties. So, that's a critical issue.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ed Lyman, thank you very much.

  • Edwin Lyman:

    Thank you.

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