Russian assault on Chernobyl smashes nuclear safety assumptions

Posted: 20th June 2022

Russian assault on
Chernobyl smashes nuclear safety assumptions. The attack on the nuclear power
has sent reactor designers back to the drawing board. Nuclear reactors are
designed to withstand plane crashes, core meltdowns and seismic shocks. But the
nuclear industry has now woken up to a security threat it had not yet
considered: war within a power plant’s walls. Experts were shocked when the
Chernobyl nuclear plant became a centre of fighting in Ukraine. The plant was
captured by Russian forces early in the war, raising fears of compounding the
radioactive tragedy that unfolded on the site in 1986. The nuclear industry has
now concluded that future sites will need to be reinforced to defend themselves
against an invading force. Professor Stephen Thomas, an energy policy expert at
the University of Greenwich, says: “The assumption had been that conflicts
would always studiously avoid any nuclear power plant and clearly that wasn’t
the case in Ukraine. But then you had fighting within the site of Chernobyl. “The
more you think about these things the more it becomes clear that you have to do
something about it. We are now at the very early stages with how things might
change after Ukraine.” Nuclear designs have been repeatedly ripped-up and
redrawn in the wake of major plant failures and other events that pose a
security threat. The meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979 saw
future reactors fitted with more extensive cooling systems to keep the reactor
core at a stable temperature. The Chernobyl meltdown led to calls for the installation
of so-called core-catchers that prevent nuclear reactors from sinking into the
soil and contaminating the groundwater after a meltdown. The Fukushima disaster
highlighted the need for more reliable back-up power systems. The plant was
rocked by a wave that surged over its external walls and flooded its reactors.
The plant’s diesel back-up generators then failed to kick in and provide a
cooling system for the core. All of these disasters led to new regulatory
standards for the industry, and experts are now discussing how to respond to
the Ukraine conflict. The Office for Nuclear Regulation investigates the safety
measures in place at a nuclear plant through its three-stage generic design
assessment. The probe does not currently demand safety provisions in the event
of conflict, but Professor Thomas says the assessments will likely be updated. He
warns the Rolls Royce designs for small modular reactors could be affected as
even a smaller plant would be vulnerable to attack. He says: “Sizewell C
may well get through the gate before all this changes but I wouldn’t bet on any
subsequent designs getting passed before new requirements are imposed. “The
fact that a small module reactor is that much smaller doesn’t mean it can’t do
a huge amount of damage. We’ll get some idea on how that will be affected when
the regulator gets stuck into assessing the Rolls Royce SMR.


Telegraph 4th
June 2022

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