When Russian forces attack a nuclear power plant, there is a potential for something to go wrong, such as a radiation spill. But the plant is usually able to endure and the most dangerous processes can be shut down, thus avoiding the worst results. Tom Bielefeld, an independent nuclear safety analyst based in Germany, reported that two shells had fallen in an area used to contain ancient nuclear waste that was north of the battle. The greatest danger in any nuclear reactor is that it will somehow interrupt the cooling of the fuel, as without sufficient cooling, the fuel will heat up to the point where it can destroy itself.
Without cooling, the cores of the three working reactors overheated and the nuclear fuel eventually melted. During the battle, Russian forces launched projectiles deep into the nuclear complex in the direction of the reactor buildings. The cost of hardening commercial nuclear power plants so that they can survive a military attack is likely too high for most countries. At the Rivne nuclear power plant in Ukraine, plant director Pavlo Pavlyshyn told NPR that Ukrainian forces were prepared to mount a defense should Russian troops try to seize the plant.
This incident raised alarm among world leaders and nuclear experts about the possibility of intentional or accidental damage to the reactor that could lead to radiation leakage or, in a worst-case scenario, melting of the reactor core. Rosatom, Russia's state-owned nuclear company, sent nearly a dozen engineers to supervise its operation. Russian troops have captured the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, which still contains nuclear waste that could pose a threat to the surrounding area. People from all over the world watched through a live-streamed security camera how Russian forces attacked and seized the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine, Europe's largest, on Friday morning local time.
Ukraine has not had to face such a challenge before in this war. After speaking with Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, IAEA Director Grossi called on all parties to “refrain from taking actions that could jeopardize Ukraine's nuclear power plants”. However, Tom Bielefeld said that if more of the plant's critical subsystems had been damaged and the nuclear engineers on site had not been able to reach emergency backups, the situation could have become dire. It was not immediately clear how the power plant was attacked, but Enerhodar Mayor Dmytro Orlov reported that a Russian military column had been seen heading towards the nuclear plant and loud gunshots were heard in the city.