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A sixth reactor at Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant is now off the grid

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Ukraine, there were renewed problems at the troubled Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant today. The plant lost its last remaining connection to Ukraine's electricity grid after intensive shelling, according to the company that runs the plant. That news comes just a few days after the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency left the site. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel is here to discuss the latest. Geoff, what happened at the plant?

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Well, normally this nuclear plant has four different connections to the electricity grid. And they were down to one. And then that one was lost due to shelling earlier this month around the plant. So it turns out there was one more backup option, a smaller line that ran through a nearby thermal power plant. And today we learned that it was also disconnected. Now, the state-run utility that runs the nuclear plant blames Russia for the shelling. The International Atomic Energy Agency said the disconnection came due to a fire, and they expected the line would be reconnected soon. But for now, the plant is not connected to the grid.

SHAPIRO: Losing four of four connections to the electricity grid sounds bad. Why specifically does this matter?

BRUMFIEL: Well, nuclear plants make a lot of electricity, but they also require electricity from the grid to operate safely. And specifically, these plants need to keep water pumping through their nuclear cores. So that keeps the cores cool and prevents them from melting down. Now, the IAEA says that one of the reactors at the site is actually still supplying power to the cooling systems. But yeah, this is a precarious way to run a nuclear plant. On Friday, the head of the IAEA, Rafael Grossi, returned from a visit. He said that it was clear its Zaporizhzhia's physical integrity had been violated by shelling and other attacks, and he was very worried about it.

SHAPIRO: Any more information on why these lines keep getting hit? Is it deliberate or accidental?

BRUMFIEL: Well, obviously, power lines are going to be affected by things like artillery shells. They're very vulnerable. But on Friday, Grossi said he thought the targeting of these lines was also deliberate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAFAEL GROSSI: It is clear that those who have these military aims know very well that the way to cripple or to do more damage is to, you know, hit where it hurts. So the plant becomes very, very problematic.

BRUMFIEL: And it does seem like these lines are going down one after another. So the last of the big four main lines was knocked out right after Grossi left. And then this backup line was knocked out today, the same day some more of IAEA's inspectors left the facility.

SHAPIRO: Why would these lines be a target?

BRUMFIEL: You know, the reactors themselves are really heavily shielded and tough to damage, and there'd be a huge international outcry if a military was seen deliberately shooting at them. But the power lines are soft targets. They're farther away. And Grossi said that, you know, makes them a tempting target for someone who's trying to make things difficult at the plant. Now, why would someone do that? It's really anyone's guess. Russia has held the plant since March, has been keeping military vehicles and personnel near the reactors. Ukraine is mounting an offensive in the south. But there's just plenty of shelling by both Russia and Ukraine in this area at the moment. So there's no way to tell.

SHAPIRO: I'm sure experts are gaming out potential scenarios. What are their concerns about what might happen next?

BRUMFIEL: Well, you know, if the site does lose cooling, then there could obviously be a meltdown. And if that happened, it would be in a war zone. We've never seen anything like that. There would be no easy way to get international help to the plant. And if that's not scary enough, Zaporizhzhia sits in the middle of some of Ukraine's most fertile farmland. So there's this real risk that any radioactivity released would be potentially economically devastating as well.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Geoff Brumfiel. Thank you.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you so much, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.