Kakhovka dam breach: 3 essential reads on what it means for Ukraine's infrastructure, beleaguered nuclear plant and future war plans

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Published in Political News

A dam that supplies drinking water to thousands of Ukrainians as well as cooling water for reactors at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station was ruptured on June 6, 2023.

Kyiv blamed the destruction on Moscow, with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy slamming “Russian terrorists” for destroying the Kakhovka dam and the adjacent hydroelectric power station on the Dnieper River. Meanwhile, the Kremlin accused Ukraine of “deliberate sabotage,” noting that the reservoir is a crucial resource for the people of Crimea, a Ukrainian region illegally annexed by Russia in 2014.

Either way, the destruction of the dam is a worrying development. It has the potential for lasting ecological damage and harm to human health in a country already ravaged by more than a year of warfare. It also evokes concerns flagged by The Conversation’s authors in past articles looking at how the conflict has put infrastructure and nuclear power on the front lines.

This isn’t the first time during the Ukraine war that concerns have been raised over the fate of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station. The plant is the largest nuclear facility in Europe. But ongoing fighting has put it in a uniquely vulnerable position.

In an interview back in August 2022 after the plant was damaged by shelling, Najmedin Meshkati, a nuclear safety expert at the University of Southern California, laid out the concerns, including a worst-case scenario in which a missile damages the nuclear reactor, releasing radiation into the atmosphere. “It could be another Chernobyl,” he said.

More pertinent to the destruction of the dam is the potential disruption to the flow of cooling water.


As Meshkati pointed out in August 2022: “Even if you shut down the reactors, the plant will need off-site power to run the huge cooling system to remove the residual heat in the reactor and bring it to what is called a cold shutdown. Water circulation is always needed to make sure the spent fuel doesn’t overheat. Spent fuel pools also need constant water circulation to keep them cool, and they need cooling for several years before they can be put in dry casks.”

The International Atomic Energy Agency has said in the aftermath of the dam rupture that there are no immediate risks to the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station. It noted that five of the six reactors there have already been put in cold shutdown, which require relatively little water. The sixth reactor is cooled with water from a nearby pond. The danger would be if the pond became depleted.

These concerns may prompt renewed calls for a demilitarized zone to be set up around the nuclear plant.

“War,” Meshkati noted, “is the worst enemy of nuclear safety.”


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