Are the Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia nuclear plants the same? Here's everything we know

We are entering uncharted territory following the first military attack on an operational nuclear power plant.
Chris Young
Two nuclear reactors working.B2G Focus/iStock

News that Russian troops have shelled the vicinity of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest nuclear plant in Europe, has been met with a global outcry.

A fire spotted at the Zaporizhzhia site was reportedly confined to living quarters, meaning the likelihood of devastation similar to the meltdown at Chernobyl in 1986 is mercifully low. But how does the Zaporizhzhia plant compare to the one in Chernobyl and what are the immediate dangers faced in the region?

What happened?

The news first came in a tweet from Ukraine Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, who wrote at about 2:00 a.m. local time that Russian forces were "firing from all sides" of the plant. The nuclear power plant at Zaporizhzhia is located 310 miles away from Chernobyl and it has a total capacity of 5.7 gigawatts, enough to power more than 4 million homes.

According to the head of Ukraine's Energoatom nuclear power utility, Petro Kotin, a shell hit the plant's first production unit, which was undergoing maintenance.

Thankfully, emergency services were able to extinguish the blaze and there were no reports of casualties. Reports have also emerged that the reactors weren't compromised and no radiation escaped, though Russian forces are now occupying the Zaporizhzhia site.

In a statement, U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said the reactors are now "being protected by robust containment structures." The plant's second and third units were put into safe "cold mode" and only the fourth remained in operation, as it was at a safer distance from the shelling.

How do Zaporizhzhia and Chernobyl differ and what are the risks?

The key difference between Zaporizhzhia and Chernobyl is that the former includes safety features that were not present at the Chernobyl plant before the 1986 meltdown occurred. Zaporizhzhia was built in the early 80s almost ten years after construction began on Chernobyl.

Unlike Chernobyl, Zaporizhzhia features pressurized (VVER) water reactors with containment structures to prevent radiation leaks. According to a Bloomberg report, emergency core cooling systems are in place alongside several injection systems to prevent a core meltdown. The reactors are also protected by thick metal and cement shells that are built to withstand an aircraft crash. Even if there was a meltdown, security measures would likely keep the effects of the fallout within the facility. This means that we likely wouldn't see a similar scenario to Chernobyl, where 350,000 people had to be evacuated, with many of them having to find a new home.

Still, risks do remain, and we're entering uncharted territory — this is the first military attack on an operational nuclear power plant in history. Russia targeted the plant because of its proximity to Crimea, which it annexed in 2014. If Russia's forces were to take out the backup diesel generators for the plant, then there would be a greater risk of a nuclear disaster — the Fukushima nuclear disaster, for example, occurred due to backup power being taken out by the 2011 tsunami in Japan. For now, the plant is under control by Russian forces, and Ukraine's authorities say it is not at immediate risk of a meltdown. 

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