'Dire' situation with battles surrounding Ukraine's nuclear power plants

The security of Ukraine's nuclear power plants in the middle of a war zone has become a growing international concern as Ukraine told international regulators that it lost all communications with the Chernobyl nuclear power plant Thursday.

"Supply of electric power for cooling is currently being provided by diesel generators. But the actual store of diesel fuel will completely deplete in less than 24 hours," said Petro Kotin, head of Ukraine's National Nuclear Energy Company in a video statement, "We are calling on the global community to apply all their efforts to prevent a new worldwide catastrophe."

Severe damage to power supplies is impacting the monitoring, fire prevention, and ventilation systems at the decommissioned Chernobyl plant which still needs power to cool the spent nuclear material.

Russian forces seized Chernobyl on the first day of the invasion and took over the Zaporizhzhya nuclear plant to the south on March 4th, knocking out two of the plant's four power lines. Ukraine says it has been impossible to get spare parts and equipment delivered for repairs and maintenance to the plant.

The International Atomic Energy Agency's Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi spoke after an urgent meeting with Russian and Ukrainian officials in Turkey Thursday. Grossi says the two sides seem accepting of direct talks to avoid compromising the safety of the nuclear power sites.

"It's a very dire situation, and we need to move fast," said Grossi, "We are losing a significant amount of information."

The IAEA regulators say it appears the Chernobyl plant does have enough water to continue cooling without electricity, but they say the radiation safety conditions are getting worse for the staff because of the lack of ventilation.

That is one of the many concerns haunting family members of the hundreds of Ukrainian workers in charge of nuclear plant operations who are being held at gunpoint. Family members are concerned about their health.

"They get like this porridge once per day. Some, some small portion. If they're lucky, they get some bread as well," said Natalia Ruemmele, who says her father is being held at the Chernobyl plant.

Raluca Scarlat, assistant professor at UC Berkeley's Nuclear Engineering Department says the workers play a critical role as another safeguard to sustain the nuclear plants' safety protocols.

"It is important that there are operators at the site that are able to make decisions about the safety of the plant and that have the independence to make the decision," said Scarlat, adding that workers also should be rotated in and out of the plant, "So that they are not exhausted, they are healthy, they have the medicine and the food that they need so that they can make the correct decisions."

The Ukraine nuclear plant concerns come as the world marks the March 11th anniversary of the 2011 Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant crisis in Japan when a tsunami destroyed the infrastructure, causing a release of radiation.

Scarlat of UC Berkeley is organizing a panel discussion in UC Berkeley's Nuclear Engineering Department to explore the lessons learned from that nuclear disaster.

The IAEA update Thursday stated that at Ukraine's four nuclear power plants "eight of the country’s 15 reactors remained operating, including two at the Zaporizhzhya NPP, three at Rivne, one at Khmelnytskyy, and two at South Ukraine. Radiation levels at the four sites were normal."

Grassi says he is hopeful Ukraine and Russia will agree soon to come to the table for high-level discussions about how to ensure the nuclear power plants are not damaged or endangered as the Russian invasion continues.