Ukraine turns off reactor at its most powerful nuclear plant after 'accident'

Prime Minister calls for the truth as electrical fault revives memories of Chernobyl

Ukraine shut down one of the six reactors in its most powerful nuclear power plant today – for the second time in a month – because of an apparent electrical malfunction.

The Zaporizhia nuclear plant’s website insisted that radiation levels in the area remained normal after the sixth reactor was “disconnected from the grid by the generator’s internal defence mechanism”.

An official statement said the plant was “operating at 40 per cent power… The reasons for the outage are being investigated”.

A short-circuit in the same power station’s third reactor contributed to power cuts  across Ukraine earlier this month. The Zaporizhia plant, in the south-east of the country, is Europe’s largest and the fifth most powerful in the world. It generates 40 per cent of Ukraine’s nuclear power and switched on its first reactor in 1984. The Prime Minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, noted the previous outage during one of his Cabinet sessions, urging ministers to tell the truth about “the accident”.

His words did not go unnoticed. The term “accident” was, after all, the word used by the Soviet newspaper Izvestia when it reported on the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine – four days late – on 30 April 1986. By then, most of the residents of towns neighbouring the plant had been evacuated – weak, stunned, and later, largely forgotten.

The parallels with today’s conflict-torn Ukraine are obvious. But Sergei Shimchev, a press officer for the Zaporizhia plant, said it would be an “major exaggeration” to describe either recent event as a significant nuclear incident.

“The latest shutdown would be zero-rated on the International Nuclear Event Scale,” said Mr Shimchev. “In peacetime, outages of this kind would be ignored and absorbed, but now the loss of one million kilowatts of power becomes a big issue.”

Irregular and infrequent coal supplies from industrialised zones caught up in the conflict has reduced energy production in Ukraine. About half of its coal-fired power stations are said to need emergency repairs, and reserves are at about one third of their usual winter levels. Many towns and cities have experienced blackouts though, so far, lights have been kept on in the capital, Kiev.

While fighting in the east is at its lowest level for some time, the crisis has taken on a new dimension following a series of bomb attacks by pro-Russian rebels in cities controlled by the Ukrainian military. This has led many to question the defences of the Zaporizhia plant, as it is relatively close to the conflict zone.

In May, the power station was the backdrop to an armed confrontation between men from Right Sector – the pro-Ukrainian paramilitary force – security guards from the plant and police. The Right Sector force said it had come to remove “pro-Russian” agitators who, it claimed, had been operating inside the plant.

Taras Bilka, a local journalist who witnessed the standoff, told The Independent the Right Sector group was surrounded by police and guards at a checkpoint on the edge of a nearby town. After four hours of talks, the men were disarmed.

The plant is said to be protected from armed disruption, and it works closely with police and military to avoid problems developing. A spokesman said: “Whether it is peace or war time, we are constantly on the look out for terror activity.”

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