Nuclear plants in war zones

19 March 2015

Alexey Kovynev looks back at nuclear power plants touched by war and reflects on the current conflict in Ukraine.

In the past the safety of nuclear power plants in warfare was a purely theoretical section of their safety analysis reports. It was generally considered in terms of a single occurrence such as a plane crash into the dome of the containment or damage to one of the important elements of functioning of a plant after a terrorist attack. During the design and construction of most reactors now in operation a terrorist attack seemed most unlikely. It was enough to take into account the complete failure of any elements, regardless of cause. The design guaranteed the safety of a station after such initiating events.

In 2011, the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, which had been assessed as of negligible likelihood, certainly changed perceptions of safety. The likelihood of being affected by war has changed in a similar way. The assumption that a country with nuclear power is sufficiently developed not to be dragged into a military conflict on its territory influences the lowered assessment of such a possibility. However events can contradict our optimistic forecasts with startling frequency. In Ukraine, recent events have increased the probability of such events occurring.

The relationship between nuclear energy and war begins in the 1950s. Since then there have been conflicts in at least eight countries with nuclear power plants or programmes. They are Yugoslavia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, India, Pakistan, Armenia and finally Ukraine. Let us consider them.

Yugoslavia, ten-day war

The disintegration of Yugoslavia began in 1991 and Slovenia, the most developed part of Yugoslavia and the only republic which had a nuclear power plant, became the first element of the collapse. The Krško plant (a single unit PWR, 700 MW) is located almost on the border of Slovenia and Croatia and at the time it was jointly owned. In June 1991 Slovenia declared independence and a 10-day war followed. Federal troops crossed the border and clashed with armed resistance from the local militia. The battlefield map shows that engagement took place along the road passing a few kilometres from the plant. About 70 people were killed during the conflict. The station remained in operation and there is no information on the impact of the conflict on the plant safety or equipment, although it was clearly a stressful experience for the plant personnel.

The Iran-Iraq war

The belligerent nature of Iran's politics has made the construction of the first Middle East nuclear power plant at Bushehr a subject of much analysis and action.
In 1978 Western sanctions forced the contractor, Germany's Kraftwerk Union (KWU) to halt its construction of the plant. The first unit was about 75 per cent complete. In 1980 the eight-year war with Iraq began. During this time the station was subject to several attacks by the Iraqi Air Force. The absence of nuclear fuel restricted the potential for damage at the station. However, despite the fact that the containment is constructed of very thick reinforced concrete there is evidence that continued shelling of the site resulted in two through-holes, each with a diameter of about half a metre in the containment dome of the second unit.

In August 2010, after Russian contractors completed the plant and before fuel was loaded, an Iranian Air Force F-4 fighter on a training flight was shot down within 20 km of Bushehr by Iran's own air defence system, which was on alert due to the planned physical start-up of the first unit on 21 August. The downed fighter crashed in the desert and both pilots parachuted to safety.

Bushehr successfully passed its commissioning tests, including International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) ones, and was connected to the grid in 2011. Let us hope that a peaceful future lies ahead for the plant.

Bombing of nuclear reactors in Iraq

The history of Iraq's nuclear programme is short but eventful. The first two nuclear reactors Tammuz 1 and Tammuz 2 were destroyed by Israel in April 1978. A new reactor was built in France in 1980 and delivered to Iraq. It was installed next to an operating Soviet reactor (IRT-5000, 2 MW) in a newly built underground nuclear centre near Baghdad. Israeli intelligence believed the new reactor was designed to produce plutonium and that military intervention before the reactor was loaded with nuclear fuel was necessary. On 7 June, 1981, a group of Israeli fighter jets struck the Iraqi reactor. Operation Opera, also known as Operation Babylon, damaged the reactor complex beyond repair.

Destruction of reactor in Syria

Syria's relations with Israel led its nuclear programme to the same fate as Iraq's. The Syrian nuclear reactor in Dir a-Zour which, according to Western media, was being built with assistance of North Korea, was destroyed by the Israeli Air Force. On the evening of 5 September 2007 ten Israeli F-15 planes, each loaded with a 500kg-warhead missile, crossed the Israeli border into Syria. A direct hit from the first missile took out Syrian radar leaving the Syrian air defence blind. Less than 20 minutes later the fleet bombed the reactor. All the missiles hit reducing the building to a pile of rubble. Twenty minutes later, all the aircraft had landed safely back at their Israeli base.

Israel did not acknowledge responsibility for the bombing but there was a little doubt in the world that this secret facility was destroyed by the Israeli Air Force. After the attack Syria continued to deny that it was a nuclear facility. The Bashar al-Assad government several times stated that it did not have nuclear reactors and had not attempted to build them. However the Syrians refused IAEA inspectors access to the site. Four years later in 2011, the IAEA admitted for the first time that a nuclear reactor under construction had been destroyed. The reactor has not been restored.

There is a clear difference between research reactors and nuclear power plants. The destruction of a research reactor, even an operational one, does not result in serious radiological consequences, due to a small amount of fissile material. In the case of the Syrian reactor, which had not been loaded with nuclear fuel, the consequences amounted to a write-off of the balance of the costs incurred and the collapse of the nuclear hopes of Bashar al-Assad.

Indo-Pakistani conflicts

India and Pakistan have had a long and difficult relationship. India has five nuclear power plants to Pakistan's two. The armed clashes between these countries are largely limited to cross-border conflicts and as reactors are located far from the borders it limits the threat to them from military actions. However, the situation is aggravated by the fact that both countries have directed nuclear weapons against each other. The question of nuclear plant safety partly pales into the background of the mutual nuclear threat.

Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict

The Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh in 1991-1993 did not affect operation of the Armenian nuclear plant (two VVER-440 reactors). The station is located not far from Yerevan, away from the theatre of hostilities. The station was shut down after a powerful earthquake in 1988 but the second unit was re-commissioned in 1995. However, the situation with Nagorno-Karabakh remains unresolved.

Ukrainian conflict

The situation in Ukraine is very a serious concern. The country has 15 reactors operating at four nuclear power plants. Ukraine is proud of its nuclear capacity, but its new circumstances make then a cause for anxiety.

Three stations (South Ukraine, Rovno, and Khmelnitsky) are situated in the western side of the country and are not part of this discussion. The largest plant in Europe, Zaporozhe with its six 1000 MW VVER-1000 reactors, lies about 200 km from the combat zone.

Thermal energy supplies and networks in Ukraine have suffered during the war. Five large thermal power plants near Donbass now operate at reduced output and are periodically in outage due to lack of coal. A hit on the unit transformer at the Lugansk power plant resulted in a blaze which put the plant out of action, blacking out a large region. Towns and villages with a total population of about 700,000 had no power, including the major industrial centre of Lugansk.

Easily accessible power grids have had frequent damage. Power lines, transformers and substations have all been hit by shelling and there have been many cases of intentional damage to electrical infrastructure. The tragic deaths of grid personnel who were shot while inspecting and repairing equipment is a black page in the history of the Ukrainian energy industry. However, during the conflict station staff have continued to work despite the threat to life and limb and through these terrible circumstances thermal energy plants have continued to generate electricity.

Design and construction for 21st century

The design of nuclear power plants has to take into account the possibility of future war situations. The design requirement is invulnerability against a military aircraft with a certain mass and speed dropping on the power unit. Though the physical security of the unit is not in doubt, the external equipment and facilities are not designed to withstand the hostilities and can be more readily damaged. Such damage could be caused by many different initiating events, so a station design copes with a failure in external structures by transferring to a safe state by means of the protected safety systems. Within the nuclear island, carefully planned hostile actions, leading to the serial destruction of the reactor installation protection channels in chaotic situations of armed conflict would only be the basis for the script of a blockbuster!

There is an assumption that in a situation of an internal conflict neither party will strike at a nuclear plant because of the senselessness of such actions - the consequences may be fatal, not only for those taking action, but also for the aims of the warring parties.

As with practically any other industrial facility, a nuclear plant is not built with sufficient strength margins to withstand military bombardment. Massive bombing of an operating plant can be assumed only for inter-state conflicts, and there seems to be negligible probability for an event such as Hiroshima and Nagasaki to take place in the 21st century.

Any system of national defence gives nuclear facilities high priority protection and should provide a reliable air defence system. As well as physical strength each station has a system of emergency preparedness and response. All types of emergencies - man-made, natural, social, political and military ones - are included in the emergency response plans. These include as standard the ability to disconnect the power units from the grid, and cool the equipment, and the use of personal protective equipment, of special equipment and protective structures, evacuation of employees and the public. A certain predictability of the processes involved - such as the slow approach of the active conflict front - allows a planned transfer of a station into a safe condition, although a decision on the total shutdown of the station can be problematic, particularly if it is responsible for supplying a large proportion of a country's electricity. This is the case for Zaporozhe, which generates about 25% of Ukraine's electricity.

This article has considered the short-term consequences of the impact of armed conflicts on the safety of a plant, which may take the form of damage to some elements of the station or deterioration of the power supply. However, it is also important to consider the long-term consequences of armed conflicts. These include shortage of spare parts and consumables, as well as lower morale of the station staff. An anxiety over the fate of their families and property could affect plant operation.

In the Ukrainian conflict the situation is aggravated by the fact that one of the parties to the conflict is Russia, which not only carries out engineering, scientific, and technical support for the Ukrainian nuclear industry but also supplies nuclear fuel for all nuclear power plants in Ukraine. It also takes away the spent fuel from all the nuclear plants except Zaporozhe. Outwardly the current situation appears not to have touched this very important aspect of Russian-Ukrainian relations.

Ukrainian officials say that nuclear fuel has been purchased for one year ahead and deliveries are in accordance with the long-term schedule. However it is difficult to imagine that in light of the current events, Ukraine will continue to rely on Russia as its sole nuclear supplier. Years before the conflict started Ukraine began a programme to diversify nuclear fuel supply. Fuel from Westinghouse has already been tested in operation, and plans for further purchases have been announced. A project to construct centralised national storage for spent nuclear fuel is underway.

About the author

Alexey Kovynev is a former shift supervisor and operator at Ukraine's Zaporozhe nuclear power plant. He is also Nuclear Engineering International's cartoonist.

The damaged IRT-5000 reactor at the Al Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Centre in Iraq. Photo Credit: Dr. Ronald K. Chesser, Director, Center for Environmental Radiation Studies, Texas Tech University. The damaged IRT-5000 reactor at the Al Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Centre in Iraq. Photo Credit: Dr. Ronald K. Chesser
Metsamor nuclear plant The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has not impacted the Metsamor plant

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