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Zaporizhzia Nuclear Plant needs more water than reservoir can give after dam breach


Following the destruction of a critical dam in Ukraine, water levels at a large reservoir are dropping fast, and that's creating new problems at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel has more on why the plant needs water to stay safe.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Nuclear power plants generate a lot of heat. Keeping them cool takes lots of water, which is why the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant sits on one of Ukraine's largest reservoirs, or it did until this week. Something destroyed a dam holding back the reservoir. In just a matter of days, the water level has already dropped by 20 feet. The Zaporizhzhia reactors aren't in crisis just yet. Olexiy Kovynyev, a former operator at the plant, says it has a large artificial pond it can draw from.

OLEXIY KOVYNYEV: It's about two miles, maybe, in diameter. It's very big water body.

BRUMFIEL: Plant operators have been slurping all the water they can out of the falling reservoir and into the pond. The International Atomic Energy Agency believes it should be enough for several months. That's also in part because the reactors need less water right now.

KOVYNYEV: Now the plant is shut down, so all six reactors are in this shutdown state.

BRUMFIEL: But even shut down, radioactive fuel can continue to produce heat for years. With the reservoir unavailable, the plant will need to find more water at some point. The IAEA says options include wells, the local water system and even mobile pumps for bringing water in from elsewhere. Setting up those alternative systems will take manpower, though, and the plant's workforce has dwindled under a brutal Russian occupation. Jacopo Buongiorno is a nuclear engineer at MIT.

JACOPO BUONGIORNO: The question is, do they have enough people to perform these actions that will have to be performed if you get to these sort of scenarios? I think they do, but who knows?

BRUMFIEL: If the reactors do run out of water, then the fuel inside could start to melt down. That could lead to some kind of radioactive release. But Buongiorno says because the reactors have already been shut down for months, it won't be anywhere near the type of catastrophic meltdown that took place at the Ukrainian Chernobyl site in 1986.

BUONGIORNO: There is just not enough heat at this point. So those scenarios are just not in the cards.

BRUMFIEL: Still, he says, any meltdown would permanently ruin the Zaporizhzhia reactors, leaving Ukraine without a vital source of electricity. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.