This image made from a video released by Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant shows bright flaring object landing in grounds of the nuclear plant in Enerhodar, Ukraine

A Ukrainian nuclear plant survived Russian attack. But it raises security concerns over reactors in war zones, analyst says.

Atomic safety experts say that a war fought amid nuclear reactors represents an unprecedented and highly dangerous situation. Henry Sokolski, the executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, talked with The World's Carol Hills about the risks.

The World

This image made from a video released by Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant shows bright flaring object landing in grounds of the nuclear plant in Enerhodar, Ukraine, March 4, 2022.

Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant/AP

Heavy fighting broke out near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in Ukraine last night.

Located in northwestern Enerhodar, the plant is the largest in Europe.

Ukraine says the attack by Russian forces caused a fire to break out at the facility. Firefighters were able to put out the blaze several hours later. 

The attack briefly raised worldwide fears of a catastrophe in the most chilling turn yet in Moscow's invasion of Ukraine. 

Related: Russia's invasion in Ukraine ‘is far from done,’ retired Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman says

United Nations and Ukrainian officials confirmed that no radiation was released in the incident. 

Authorities said that Russian troops had taken control of the overall site but that the plant staff continued to run it. 

Atomic safety experts said a war fought amid nuclear reactors represents an unprecedented and highly dangerous situation.

To get a better understanding of the risks at nuclear power plants in war zones, The World's host Carol Hills spoke to Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.

Related: Ukrainians abroad return to defend their homeland
 

Carol Hills: We know there was a fire at the plant. What are the risks?
Henry Sokolski: The risks would be, instead of shooting at an auxiliary building, some young buck might aim the artillery or the missile out of a spent-fuel pond [pool] storage building, or the containment building for the reactor core, or the electrical lines coming in that supply the electricity to keep both of those facilities cool so that they don't melt down or produce spent-fuel fires. If any of that might have occurred, the hyperbole of many Chernobyl's isn't really far from the mark.
Ukraine has said the power plant is now occupied by the Russian military, and we know that employees are still operating the plant. But how do we know the situation is under control?
Well, I mean, the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] wants to get there. I don't know that that's a complete thought. You want to probably have some way to know without having physical visits that things are operating properly, particularly at facilities that might be subject to war operations. And we just don't have that. I mean, we have to go on the reports of the people operating that are in control of it. And I don't know that this is a big issue, because only one of the six plants is operating now. The others were all shut down for fear that the containment buildings would have been penetrated and that the big radiological release that I talked about might occur. What you do is you shut the thing down so that the pressures and heat aren't as great. And so, the emissions from penetration wouldn't be quite as dramatic. But you know, that means that most of these facilities are not operating right now.
What are these plants built to withstand?
Not as much as being advertised. What they're built primarily to withstand is pressures from the inside of the plant getting out. And so, some of the containment systems are as low as 15 or 20 pounds per square inch. They were not meant to prevent ballistic objects from penetrating from outside. The spent-fuel pond [pool] building is incredibly soft in comparison to the containment building.
But are they routinely built to, say, withstand an earthquake?
They are supposed to be sited to not have to experience the earthquakes. In Japan, they have not done well in earthquakes. I don't know whether the seismic issue is a big one in Ukraine. But I think we have oversold to ourselves how resistant these plants are to the kinds of military operation threats that are going on here in Ukraine and that could occur in the Middle East. We did a big study on what would happen if missiles hit various portions of reactors in the Middle East, and the radiological models and patterns were very disturbing. We didn't have the presence of mind to do it for Ukraine, but obviously, this should be a wake-up call. I don't know that these kinds of studies have been properly done within our own government. I say that as somebody who worked at the Defense Department, at a pretty senior level.
There are a lot of nuclear power plants across Ukraine. I mean, what are the risks to them at this point?
I think they're similar. The Russians have not promised anything but to operate, if they choose, militarily against those facilities in the future. I mean, they were asked not to and they said, "No, we reserve the right to attack them, as well." People should be probably relieved about this [outcome], but biting their nails about other plants.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.AP contributed to this report.