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What Happens When A Nuclear Power Plant Shuts Down Suddenly?

Written by Manya Pandey, a first-year undergraduate student.

The largest Nuclear power plant in Europe, Zaporizhzhia, has fallen into Russian hands after the country invaded Ukraine, and there’s now a fear that…

By I Kid You Not , in Explained World News , at September 2, 2022 Tags: , ,

Written by Manya Pandey, a first-year undergraduate student.

The largest Nuclear power plant in Europe, Zaporizhzhia, has fallen into Russian hands after the country invaded Ukraine, and there’s now a fear that Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to take the plant off the Ukrainian power grid.

Read: The Russia-Ukraine Conflict Explained

So what’s the problem? 

Decoupling (meaning, closing in or disengaging) a nuclear plant is not that easy. In fact, abruptly withdrawing electricity from running nuclear reactors can lead to a nuclear disaster.

Although the Zaporizhzhia plant can generate its electricity in case the off-site power supply fails. But there are standard scientific procedures to be followed while shutting down the reactors and it is not something that can happen overnight. Also, the plant has been under constant shelling which has pushed it more into the danger zone. 

A quick background

Ukraine, a country in Europe, has been under invasion by Russia for the last 6 months. Russia has been targeting Ukraine since 2014 but they launched a full-scale invasion of the country on 24 February 2022.

Now, the biggest nuclear plant in the European continent named Zaporizhzhia has been overtaken by Russian forces and is under constant shelling. You can find out more details in this great coverage here: The Russia-Ukraine Conflict Explained

The dangers

So, here’s the thing – nuclear reactors in the Zaporizhzhia plant are kept underwater along with nuclear fuel to keep them cool – otherwise, the reaction may get out of control and cause a disaster (basically burn down or straight up vaporize everything in its way).

Currently, the electricity required for this cooling process comes from Ukraine but if Russia cuts the power supply, it may trigger a never-ending chain reaction. It’s a concoction for a tragedy that will continue for generations because radioactive reaction never stops. 

Now let’s find out what happens when you shut down a nuclear plant.

Nuclear power plants are a source of clean energy, which means they do not release any greenhouse gasses but do produce hazardous radioactive waste.

Now if the Zaporizhia power plant is shut, Ukraine will lose its main supply of electricity, along with some other European countries which may turn the war tides in Russia’s favour.

But, if the plant is shut in chaos or haste, it can lead to a nuclear disaster because even after the reactors are shut, they keep heating for years which is very dangerous for humans and all other life forms including plants.

But if done properly here’s what happens. 

Decommissioning a nuclear plant is a standard procedure that involves a lot of administrative as well as technical procedures before the land could turn to what it was before the plant was laid.

Such procedures involve

  • Stopping the nuclear reaction and collecting the used nuclear in containers that can transport it somewhere safe
  • Cleaning up the contaminated radioactive materials
  • Dismantling and demolishing the operating buildings.

It’s an expensive and time-intensive process but it’s extremely important for the environment and inhabitants of the area. 

Can a land where nuclear reactors once existed return to normal?

Yes, once the decommissioning is complete and all the radioactive contamination has been checked, the procedure may proceed to “greenfield status”, which means the land can turn to what it was before the plant was functional. 

For instance, The Big Rock Point nuclear power plant in Michigan, United States achieved “greenfield status”. It was shut down in 1997 after 35 years of operation and was restored to greenfield status and the land was later released for unrestricted public use. 

Did you know?

A nuclear plant should be decommissioned within 60 years after its stops operating 

Nuclear reactors use fission reactions to generate energy. Simply put, it just splits an atom into two. 

According to US government estimates, in 2021, nuclear power plants in the country produced 778 billion kilowatts of electricity

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