In Zaporizhia, Ukraine, Europe’s largest nuclear power plant is at the center of a fight with Russia, and there is a risk that iodine tablets will be distributed to locals to protect them from radioactive fumes.
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If worst fears of a power plant explosion comparable to the Chernobyl incident in 1986 appear to have been dismissed, the situation is alarming. Professor Guy Marleau, who has taught nuclear engineering at Polytechnique Montreal for more than 30 years, analyzes two possible scenarios.
“The situation is very worrying,” Professor Guy Marleau was quick to comment. But since this type of power plant is well protected, it is unlikely that the power plant will explode as a result of an explosion. “Concrete reinforcement can withstand a plane crash,” Mr. Marlio says.
He explains that the staff in the office are Ukrainian and the new resident is Russian. This is an exceptional situation where the enemy nations have to work together. “It increases anxiety,” he says.
The International Atomic Energy Agency arrived at the site on Tuesday and is conducting inspections. A routine activity in normal times, but it takes a particular twist in times of war.
Representatives from more than a dozen countries are to check the status of six reactors, five of which have been shut down in recent weeks.
A few days ago, the plant had to resort to emergency diesel generators due to a power outage.
Faced with danger, authorities distributed iodine tablets to people around Zaporizhia. Why?
“Iodine takes up residence in the thyroid very quickly. When you give constant iodine, it saturates the gland,” says Professor Marleau.
This iodine is preferably stable rather than radioactive. If space is taken up, radioactive iodine is not absorbed by the body. Reduces the risk of cancer.
1. Desperate situation
The situation developed: the war was at a standstill and the power plant was cut off from its power supply.
“We have 90 minutes!” When asked what would happen if a nuclear reactor stopped being cooled by a pumping system, Professor Marleau sums it up. Within minutes of the extreme heat, radioactive leaks could occur in the sky over Ukraine.
Any nuclear power plant must be continuously cooled by large amounts of water, similar to the cooling system of our car engines. Otherwise, excessive heat may cause the fuel to melt.
This is what caused the tsunami to cut off power in Fukushima, Japan. Ironically, the plant was flooded, but the pipes were broken, which was dangerous for the fuel pipes.
Without cooling, the uranium fragments at the heart of six reactors can reach 2000 degrees. Result: They melt and fall to the bottom of the boiler.
This heat vaporizes the cooling water and increases the pressure in the reactor. “Emergency systems are designed to avoid this, the expert points out. Valves are opened to release pressure. Unfortunately, radioactive fumes escape with steam.
Depending on the direction and strength of the wind, the radioactive cloud could spread to Ukraine, Russia, Romania and Switzerland and Hungary.
2. Optimistic atmosphere
The situation is tense: the war ends in a few weeks and the Russians leave the territory.
Ukrainian workers regained full control of the plant.
All six furnaces of the plant must be inspected for safety by qualified inspectors.
It is still in good working order and can be restarted safely.
“The effects can still be contained,” says Guy Marleau, adding that this type of plant, which meets a quarter of the Ukrainian population’s electricity needs, is the most reliable in terms of safety.
Human error is possible in situations where tensions are high.
According to The New York Times, many nuclear experts believe a buffer zone should be built around the plant. It would be a completely demilitarized zone of 30 kilometers around Zaporizhia.