Analysis: Russian attacks fuel debate on nuclear energy as a climate solution

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Surveillance camera footage shows a flare landing at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant during shelling in Enerhodar, Zaporizhia Oblast, Ukraine on March 4, 2022, in this screenshot from a video obtained from social media. Zaporizhzhya NPP via

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By Timothy Gardner

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Russia’s acquisition of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in Ukraine should urge companies and policymakers to be more cautious about plans to build reactors to combat climate change, nuclear safety experts said on Friday.

Russian forces seized the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant in Ukraine on Friday after fierce fighting caused a massive fire at a training building at the site. The fire was extinguished and officials said the facility was safe.

But the seizure, a week after Russian troops took over the defunct but still radioactive Chernobyl factory, sparked global alarm over nuclear power vulnerabilities to war attacks that could unleash deadly radiation.

“You need to take the need for protection in nuclear power plants more seriously, not just for natural disasters, but also for man-made disasters,” said Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear safety at the Union for Concerned scientists.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the United Nations, told an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council on Friday that the attack on Zaporizhzhya was “incredibly reckless and dangerous. And threatened the security of civilians across Russia, Ukraine and Europe.”

The US embassy in Ukraine called the Russian attack on the factory a “war crime”.

Henry Sokolski, head of the Non-Proliferation Policy Education Center, a nonprofit organization, said the attack dealt a blow to the nuclear power industry as a whole:

“The nuclear reactor in Ukraine was not hit as hard as nuclear tonight, if officials take into account the military vulnerability of these machines,” he said.

RACE TO NUCLEAR

Plans to develop nuclear power, which generate electricity while emitting virtually no greenhouse gases, have gained momentum in recent years as governments pledge to fight global warming.

According to the World Nuclear Association, there are now 58 reactors under construction and 325 proposals around the world. Many proposed plants are in Eastern Europe.

The White House said in November that US company NuScale Power LLC had plans with Romania to build a small modular reactor (SMR) plant, adding in the agreement that “US technology will lead the global race for deployment.” of SMR”.

Last month NuScale, majority stake in construction and engineering company Fluorine Corp (NYSE:), signed an agreement with Polish company KGHM Polska to build another small modular reactor plant in Poland by 2029 as part of an effort to reduce dependence on coal, which emits large amounts of carbon dioxide and lung-harmful soot when burned.

NuScale also signed an agreement in December with Kazakhstan Nuclear Power Plants LLP (KNPP) to investigate the deployment of the power plants in that country.

Diane Hughes, a NuScale spokesperson, said the Zaporizhzhia incident “re-emphasizes that nuclear power plants have robust, resilient and redundant safety features” and that the technology is even more secure.

And in January, Westinghouse Electric Co signed cooperation agreements with 10 Polish companies for the possible construction of six AP1000 conventional nuclear reactors. It also signed a memo with Rafako SA on the possibility of developing nuclear power plants in Ukraine, Slovenia and the Czech Republic.

Cathy Mann, a Westinghouse spokesperson, said “nuclear power is a safe, zero-carbon source in Ukraine and around the world.”

Third Way, a Washington-based think tank that supports nuclear energy, said the gravity of climate change means the world must rapidly increase nuclear power in the coming decades, despite the risks.

“No energy source is without risk,” said Josh Freed, the group’s senior vice president for climate and energy. “If (Russian President Vladimir) Putin wants to kill countless people by blowing up a dam or attacking a nuclear power plant, he could do it. But the fact is… nuclear power plants are incredibly safe,” Freed said.

Others disagree.

Lyman of UCS dismissed claims that new nuclear reactors “will be so safe and that they can be deployed virtually anywhere in the world with minimal protection” as “slippery talk” statements.

The Nuclear Energy Institute, the US industry group, told Reuters it believes nuclear reactors are safe and that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine only reinforces the need for Europe to expand its nuclear power capacity.

Russia is currently a major supplier of power plants in Europe.

“We expect that the tragic events of recent weeks will only increase interest in partnering with the United States in deploying next-generation nuclear energy,” said John Kotek, senior vice president of policy development and public affairs at NEI.