Power plants against Europe map

Europe’s largest nuclear plant goes offline as the bloc prepares for an energy shortage

Image credit: Foto 240302462 © Roman Barkov | Dreamstime.com

Germany and France are among the European countries preparing contingency plans for disruptions in energy supplies from Russia, as the country's war with Ukraine leaves the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant disconnected from the electricity grid.

Zaporizhzhia, Europe’s largest nuclear plant has been knocked off Ukraine’s electricity grid after a fire caused by Russian shelling brought down its last transmission line, the facility’s operator said.

The news comes as the European Union prepares for a harsh winter marked by high energy prices as a result of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. 

The developments came a day before UN inspectors were due to report on their efforts to avert a potential disaster at the Ukrainian site. In a perilous mission, experts with the International Atomic Energy Agency travelled through the war zone to reach the plant last week.

By the time the plant went offline, four of six UN nuclear agency inspectors had completed their work and left the site, according to Energoatom, Ukraine’s state nuclear power plant operator, on Monday. The other two experts were expected to stay at the plant on a permanent basis, Energoatom said.

The UN inspectors are scheduled to brief the Security Council on Tuesday about what they found out on their visit. The plant is largely crippled, contributing to the energy shortages Europe is facing as a result of sanctions imposed on Russia following the invasion of Ukraine. 

Before the plant was knocked off the grid, both Ukraine and Russia had traded accusations about endangering the facility, which is currently held by Kremlin forces but operated by Ukrainian staff. 

“There are Russian troops now who don’t understand what’s happening, don’t assess the risks correctly,” said Ukraine’s presidential adviser, Mykhailo Podolyak, celebrating the IAEA’s decision to leave some experts at the plant.

“There is a number of our workers there, who need some kind of protection, people from the international community standing by their side and telling [Russian troops]: ‘Don’t touch these people, let them work,’” he added. 

Over the past few months, gas supplies from Russia have declined in what a leaked European Commission draft described as a “deliberate attempt to use energy as a political weapon." The situation is currently driving an increase in energy prices and raising concerns about energy supplies for winter.

Last Friday, Russian energy company Gazprom announced that a suspension of gas supplies heading westwards through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline would be extended indefinitely because oil leaks in turbines need fixing.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the sanctions on Moscow and Russian companies have created problems with equipment maintenance, a claim that has been refuted by Western governments and engineers. Germany’s Siemens Energy, which manufactured the turbines used by the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, said turbine leaks can be fixed while gas continues to flow through the pipeline.

However, the suspension of gas supplies has led Germany to do a policy U-turn and confirm that it would keep two nuclear plants on standby beyond the end of the year. 

Economy Minister Robert Habeck underlined that the country was not wavering from its plan to move on from nuclear energy, with all plants being unplugged from the grid at the end of the year. However, it confirmed that two of Germany's three remaining power plants would "remain available until mid-April 2023 in case needed".

"War and the climate crisis are having a very concrete impact," Habeck said, referring to a summer drought that has dried up Germany's rivers and impeded fuel transport. However, he said an energy crisis was still "extremely unlikely" and assured that Germany had a "very high security of supply".

Extending the lifetime of the plants, which account for six per cent of the country's electricity output, has set off a heated debate in Germany, where nuclear power has been a source of controversy. Moreover, the move is especially sensitive for Habeck, whose Green party has its roots in the anti-nuclear movement.

Earlier Monday, Germany's Chancellor Olaf Scholz spoke with French President Emmanuel Macron, who said France was ready to deliver more gas to Germany to allow Berlin to export more electricity.

France, which has long leaned on nuclear power, is itself struggling after a number of its reactors were shut down due to corrosion issues. The situation has led the country to call for a 10 per cent reduction in the country’s energy use in the coming weeks and months to avoid the risk of rationing and cuts this winter. 

Macron warned that energy rationing plans are being prepared “in case” they are needed and that “cuts will happen as a last resort”.

“The best energy is that which we don’t consume,” the French leader said at a news conference, where he urged French businesses and households to save energy, including by turning down heating and air conditioning.

Both nations have also been at the centre of EU discussions regarding the need for an "emergency intervention" that would reform the bloc's energy market to curb soaring prices. 

Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the nation supplied 27 per cent of the EU’s imported oil and 40 per cent of its gas, with the bloc paying around €400bn (£341bn) a year in return. That is equivalent to around 2.4 million barrels per day, according to data from the International Energy Agency. 

In May this year, the EU announced its intention to effectively cut 90 per cent of oil imports from Russia by the end of the year, in protest at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. However, the measure has resulted in rising oil and gas prices across the bloc, which have led EU officials to request reductions in nations’ electricity use of as much as 15 per cent. 

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