BERLIN — For many in Ukraine the city of Enerhodar is known simply as "Atomic City." It was founded a couple of decades ago to accommodate a power station, and the city with its 50,000 inhabitants in southeastern Ukraine is known today as one of the country's main energy suppliers. The six reactor blocks of the Zaporizhia Nuclear Power Station spread out over many hundreds of meters along the banks of the Kakhovka Reservoir on the Dnieper River. The power station is not just responsible for most of Ukraine's electricity, but it is also the city's biggest employer and Europe's largest nuclear power plant.
Atomic City's dimensions were always suspect to critics of atomic energy, but these days even professionals in the nuclear sector are a bit uneasy about Zaporizhia. That's because the power station is located just 124 miles from the part of Ukraine occupied by separatists, meaning the reactors are located in one of Europe's most dangerous regions.
Workers there saw the danger first-hand last spring when a group of armed men tried to get into the complex in the dark of night. Police were able to stop them at the last minute. The reasons for the attack are still unclear.
In view of the escalating conflict between Ukraine and Russia, concerns are also mounting in Germany about the security of the Zaporizhia complex. The Ukrainian government has repeatedly sent warning signals over the past weeks, and even asked NATO for backup. In April, civilian experts were sent in to monitor the safety of the nuclear power plant and other energy infrastructure such as gas facilities.
In a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) Secretary General, Kiev warned of "illegal armed actions by Russian troops on Ukrainian soil" and "possible effects on the nuclear power infrastructure."
Along with Zaporizhia in the east, three other power plants in the country's east, south and west are part of the network. In total, there are 15 reactors in Ukraine, covering about half of the country's electricity needs. The facilities are all built in the Russian style and, at 25 to 30 years old, already pose a risk because of their age, according to environmental organization Greenpeace.
The West suddenly cares
But until now, the facilities played virtually no role in the crisis policies of Western politicians. As late as July, the German federal government took the view that Ukraine was in a position to "guarantee nuclear safety." But neither did the government anticipate any problems from work being done on the damaged Chernobyl reactor in 1986, Rita Schwarzelühr-Sutter, parliamentary secretary of state at the Ministry of the Environment, wrote in a letter to concerned members of parliament.
Germany's opposition parties are now calling for decisive action in view of the escalating conflict in Ukraine. The Greens are accusing the federal government of doing too little to ensure the safety of the nuclear power stations. "In Ukraine, there is acute threat," says Sylvia Kotting-Uhl, atomic policy spokesperson for the Green faction. "Ukrainian nuclear facilities represent a permanent danger. The German federal government has underestimated this serious problem since the beginning of the conflict."
Berlin should act without delay to strengthen the security of nuclear facilities by leading talks on the subject, Green politicians and Green faction chief Anton Hofreiter wrote in a joint letter to Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks that was made available to Süddeutsche Zeitung.
"There are no indications of immediate threat to Ukrainian nuclear facilities," the federal Ministry of the Environment stated on Tuesday. But Berlin also signaled that it took the concerns seriously. "The federal government has a fundamental interest in guaranteeing the operational security of Ukrainian nuclear facilities and ensuring that they are sufficiently protected from attack," the Ministry continued.
Germany's leading nuclear safety research body is thus in ongoing exchanges with entities concerned with the law related to nuclear installations and Ukrainian specialists with an eye to ensuring operational security and security from outside threat.
"The Ukrainian atomic authority has furthermore expressed an interest in expanding collaboration with Germany with regard to security of the facility," the Ministry added. Berlin and its partners would thus be looking into how the international community and Germany could support Ukraine in this regard.
That the nuclear facilities are not located directly in the conflict zone does not still the concerns of Western politicians. The downing of the Malaysia Airlines flight confirmed the "major worry that many people including ourselves have felt for a while, which is that the Ukrainian nuclear sites could be possible targets for attack," the letter from the Greens goes on to say. Technical problems could also prove to be a danger. The example of Fukushima demonstrate that long interruptions in power supply could lead to core meltdown. Secure transportation of atomic materials to and from Russia are another source of concern to the experts.
An additional obstacle is the close linkage between the Ukrainian and Russian nuclear industries. All 15 Ukrainian nuclear power blocks are of the Soviet type. Ukraine has been sending atomic waste back over the border to the Ural mountains or Siberia becuase the country doesn't have its own facilities for atomic waste. Another open issue is whether Ukraine will have enough qualified personnel in the future to work in atomic facilities, as Ukrainian atomic experts have until now been trained in a place that symbolizes the present crisis like no other: Crimea's Sevastopol.