Ukraine: 213 attacks on power infrastructure by Russia spark disaster fears

Disruption of power supply to the Donbas coal basin has potentially led to high levels of water pollution  

By Seema Prasad
Published: Thursday 29 December 2022
Ukraine: 213 verified attacks on power infrastructure by Russia spark disaster fears
Photo: iStock Photo: iStock

As many as 213 incidents of military actions on energy infrastructure such as thermal power plants, nuclear power plants and electricity substations were reported in Ukraine since Russia’s invasion on February 24, 2022, a new study found.

This could lead to environmental and humanitarian disasters with potential transboundary effects, though the documentation of this is limited as of now, according to the report. 

Ukraine has 16 thermal power plants, 49 combined heat and power plants, three hyperaccumulating power plants and eight hydropower plants. The country also has four operational nuclear power plants with 15 reactors.

As many as 63 incidents of damage to the infrastructure were verifiable, according to PAX, a peacekeeping organisation that documents the environmental impact of war and conflicts.

Among the verifiable incidents, 26 were on thermal power plants, 14 were on nuclear power plants, and 22 were on substations, the organisation analysed. 

Watch: Environmental impacts of the Russia-Ukraine conflict

Verification of incidents is performed together with PAX’s partner, the Centre for Information Resilience (CIR), as well as with the help of satellite imagery from the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the European Space Agency as well as commercial very-high-resolution imagery provided by Planet and MAXAR Technologies, an American space technology company.

PAX maintains a database of information collected through media and social media channels, from REACH, a humanitarian initiative providing information on disaster and displacement, and from the Center for Environmental Initiatives EcoAction, a civil society organisation that advocates clean energy practices. This initiative is part of a broader effort on environmental data collection in relation to the war in Ukraine.

Power infrastructure was damaged in 17 of Ukraine’s 24 demarcated regions, the report noted, adding: 

The largest number of incidents occurred in the Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk, Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Kyiv and Mykolaiv regions. The majority of verified incidents in this reporting period involved transformer substations, notably 330 kilovolt substations, the second highest voltage level and most prominent transmission voltage across Ukraine.

“In most cases, these substations were the primary substations for their respective cities, meaning their damage or destruction often had severe consequences for energy consumption in these cities,” the authors of the report added. “Thermal power plants (TPPs) were also frequently targeted. Not all claims regarding TPPs could be verified.”

The night before the invasion on February 24, Ukraine was deliberately disconnected from the power systems of Russia and Belarus. On March 16, Ukraine’s power grid was connected to the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity, a year ahead of its initial plan. It is the association that ties the European transmission system operators together. But still, the damage continues due to continuous attacks from Russia.

“As a result of these attacks, 40 per cent of energy infrastructure is significantly damaged as of October 19, 2022. NEC Ukrenergo, the electricity transmission operator in Ukraine, has started applying restriction schedules for consumers of various categories, populations and industrial consumers throughout the country,” the report said.

Worst hit

Of the 15 nuclear reactors in Ukraine, six reactors are at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, which is Europe’s largest nuclear power plant. As recently as November, explosives targeted the plant. 

Despite Russian troops capturing the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant on March 4, the staff continued to operate to maintain the stable power supply for cooling processes to maintain technogenic and radiation safety.

Read more: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima: And now Zaporizhzhia?

Currently, only one external 750 kV power line is operating instead of the four that were in operation before the invasion, the study noted. Emergency diesel generators are used during these periods to provide cooling systems for the plant’s six reactors in order to prevent the start of a meltdown, the study said.

“When the cooling system stops functioning, the fuel rods of the reactors begin to melt,” the researchers explained. They added:

This process led to the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan: The power supply system was destroyed by a tsunami and after three hours the rods began to melt.

The disruption of power supply to the Donbas coal basin, which has 220 coal mines, could stop the pumping out of water used during mining. This can lead to the accumulation of mine water in rivers and groundwater, causing massive water pollution, the report explains.

Europe’s largest coke plant, the Avdiivka coke plant, located in Donbas, is the main producer of coke in Ukraine. After the invasion, the transport channels, including the railway connections and conveyor tracts that move raw materials were destroyed. 

Read more: Russian invasion of Ukraine released 8 million tonnes carbon till September, says report

Inadequate steam production due to power shortage could stop the coke oven gas purification process part of coke production, leading to unprecedented air pollution, the report warns.

Damage identification is only a first step, the report said. But to get the whole picture, various Ukrainian and international organisations should “carry out a further assessment, fieldwork should be conducted: Taking samples of water and soil, measuring spills and identifying destroyed buildings that contain substances hazardous to the environment and public health”.

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