Nico Woods, a graduate of the US Naval Academy, is a former nuclear submarine officer qualified to operate and oversee the US Navy’s most advanced nuclear reactors as a nuclear engineer. He sat down with the Kyiv Post to answer some of our readers’ top questions about what the standoff at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant means from a practical perspective of potential risk.
You are a nuclear engineer: how did that happen?
All United States Navy submarines are nuclear powered, so as an officer I had to undergo nuclear training to operate and oversee nuclear power plant operations. Nuclear submarines are unprecedented in what they can do. They produce their own electricity, water, oxygen, so pretty much the only reason they have to return to port is to resupply food for the crew.
How long have you spent on nuclear submarines? What was your job?
I spent over three years assigned to the submarine service. Most of the time I was underwater. As an officer, I held several positions, from supervising the operations of the nuclear power plant to driving the submarine. The nuclear reactor used is pressurized water, the same type of design used at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.
What do you think of the situation surrounding the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant?
This is concerning because, according to verified reports, operators do not enjoy full autonomy over plant operations. Then there are reports of military attacks at the plant that endanger the integrity of the reactor cores. A nuclear reactor requires 24/7 monitoring to ensure that all operations are normal. Any reactor can have more than 100 parameters that must meet specifications to ensure safe and reliable operation of the plant.
How serious is this situation?
If plant workers are unable to do their job of maintaining the reactors safely and providing reliable electricity, or if the plant is at risk of physical destruction from military attacks, there will be a high risk of damage. in the cores of nuclear reactors or possible ruptures. of containment.
What’s the worst case scenario?
Breaking the containment of one of the nuclear reactors would release nuclear radioactivity into the environment. This will not only impact the local area but, if released into the air, the radioactivity could spread throughout Europe. Although the reactors are well protected by lead shielding to protect plant workers, it does not serve as a missile shield.
If there was a nuclear accident: what would be the most likely? Mushroom clouds?
Given the inherent characteristics of a pressurized water reactor with the safety devices installed at the plant, the most likely accident would be a release of nuclear radioactivity from a cylinder head in its containment. Given the vast possibilities of how this can happen, it is of the utmost importance that every measure is taken to prevent it.
It is said that the water/electricity could be cut off at the factory. What does it do?
Nuclear reactors produce a lot of heat when they operate, so much so that they need electricity to run cooling pumps to ensure that the water constantly removes heat. In the event of a loss of electricity leading to a loss of power to the reactor pumps, the core could overheat. If the core overheats, the fuel cells can melt and you will have a release of radioactive elements in the primary cooling system of the nuclear reactor. Although still confined within the plant, there is now one less safety mechanism that stops the release of radioactivity into the environment.
How big are these reactors?
It is the largest nuclear power plant in Europe. These reactors are the size of a small building and the containment facility is as large as an office building.
How long does it take for a reactor to melt if it stops cooling?
Depending on factory settings at the time of loss of cooling, this can take minutes to hours.
Is there anything visibly burning that people in nearby towns would see if the thing melted?
There would be no indication to the public if there was core damage unless there was a breach in the containment building.
How long would everything remain radioactive?
The radioactive elements produced in a uranium-based nuclear reaction have a half-life (which corresponds to the decay time of 50%) of more than a billion years. This is why any measure aimed at containing radioactive elements is of the utmost importance.
You are now in Kyiv. Knowing what you know, if you lived in Zaporizhzhia, would you leave?
I think it would be wise for local residents to have an evacuation plan if the situation deteriorates so that they can leave the area.
What are you doing in Kyiv?
I run a charity, the Ukrainian Freedom Fund (www.theUFF.org), which helps provide humanitarian and non-lethal aid to Ukrainian military forces.
A final thought?
Tobias Ellwood and Adam Kinzinger, members of the British and American legislative branches, respectively, have pointed out that a release of radioactivity from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant would violate NATO’s Article 5, which states that an attack on a member state of the defensive alliance is an attack on each of them. The reasoning here is that the release of radioactive elements will not be contained in Ukraine as it could be airborne or seep into the nearby Dnieper which flows into the Black Sea. NATO should address this concern urgently in order to reduce the current risk at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.