Piercing the fog of war at Ukraine’s embattled Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Plant

After plumbing Ukraine’s lightning fast leap to unplug from Russia’s power grid and a pair of exposés exposing Russian moles within its nuclear energy utility, my latest reporting on the #EnergyFront refocused coverage of the warfare threatening Europe’s largest nuclear power plant. While domestic and international reporting focused on the terrifying explosions rocking Zaporizhzhia — a perilous game of nuclear roulette — my stories spotlighted efforts by Ukrainian nuclear experts to cancel the game, and thus slash the risk of devastating reactor meltdowns.

Few stories questioned why Zaporizhzhia was still producing power in the middle of a war zone. U.S. reactors proactively shut down when, for example, a hurricane is barreling in. Why was Ukraine’s nuclear utility and energy ministry and nuclear regulator ordering Zaporizhzhia’s operators to do otherwise, and why was its nuclear regulator allowing it? The answer: Ukraine wanted to maximize its power supply to bolster electricity exports to Europe in a bid for political support and badly-needed revenue.

But nuclear experts I spoke to, such as former Chernobyl chief engineer and IAEA board member Nikolai Steinberg, called maintaining nuclear chain reactions at Zaporizhzhia “a crime.” Shutting down, Steinberg and others argued, would cool Zaporizhzhia’s reactors, thus slashing the risk of an accident akin to (or potentially worse than) Japan’s Fukushima disaster.

My first story laid out the experts’ case for a proactive shutdown. For example, I cited an unpublished assessment by Ukraine’s state nuclear-safety center reviewing the risk of a station-wide blackout that would zap the plant’s ability to cool its reactors and pools of spent nuclear fuel (as occurred at Fukushima in 2011). Moving Zaporizhzhia’s reactors to a ‘cold stop’, they found, would reduce accident risk by extending the time between station blackout and reactor core damage from 3 hours to 27 hours, buying crucial time for operators to find workarounds and restart cooling.

Shutting down proactively would also cease the production of short-lived fission products, reducing the harm caused by any reactor breach.

I followed up one week later after shelling (most likely by the Russian forces occupying the plant) forced the entire plant off the grid for the first time since it began operating in 1985, and temporarily shut down two reactors. My story explained how:

  • Repeated damage to Zaporizhzhia’s transmission lines — the electrical umbilical cords linking it to Ukraine’s grid — caused the plant’s reactors to blink on and off the grid.
  • The near misses bolstered calls for an orderly shutdown, even if diesel generators and other emergency systems had averted radiological accidents; and
  • Ukrainian officials continued to restart reactors and power generation rather than heed the warnings.

My story also noted, however, that nuclear experts had scored one win. Ukraine’s nuclear regulator took a symbolic baby step by ordering two reactor units already in cold shutdown to remain offline.

A few days later after that story the White House called for a “controlled shutdown” at Zaporizhzhia. Ukraine’s nuclear utility Energoatom acceded to the growing chorus on September 11.

The Internal Struggle Compounding Ukraine’s Nuclear Peril

There’s a cloak-and-dagger struggle on for control of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants, pitting activist nuclear professionals against alleged Russian agents. I began tracking this opaque battle early in Russia’s invasion when Ukraine’s state security bureau detained the nuclear power utility’s director of personnel. That cast a dark cloud over officials he’d appointed at Energoatom’s headquarters and at the four nuclear power plants that supply over half of Ukraine’s electricity.

Now this spy-vs-spy battle for Ukraine’s nuclear power has leapt from the shadows.

Last month Ukrainian counterintelligence pierced an “extensive agent network” led by the suspect official’s longtime patron: U.S.-sanctioned Russian spy Andriy Derkach, who gained global notoriety passing kompromat on Biden to Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani in 2019. Then utility CEO Petro Kotin fanned the flames this month in a disastrous appearance before a parliamentary panel. Kotin did not win deputies’ confidence when, for example, he explained that his deputy failed to show for the hearing because he had the day off.

The spectacle prompted Kyiv-based media outlet Glavcom to report that Ukraine’s “Nuclear energy is in danger,” and that a “search for collaborators” was on.

Fears of infiltration add to the instability created by Russia’s unprecedented military assaults on Ukraine’s nuclear reactors. And both threats raise the spectre of accidents that could spread radiation across Europe, and undercutting Ukraine’s ability to defend itself. If the power grid collapses, the country will be in chaos.

Read the full story @IEEE Spectrum

🥇 A full year of regional, cross-border reporting on decarbonization’s hows, whys and why-nots.

** MAY 2022 UPDATE The Society of Professional Journalists’ Northwest Excellence in Journalism contest has recognized our series with two first-place prizes — one for Writing: Environment & Natural Disaster Reporting and another for Collaboration

In June 2020 InvestigateWest cofounder Robert McClure commissioned me to map out a regional reporting project about ‘decarbonizing’ the Pacific Northwest. That turned into Getting to Zero: Decarbonizing Cascadia, which we launched in January 2021. Throughout last year the series explored how Washington, Oregon and British Columbia (which form the Cascadia bioregion) could get off fossil fuels, and why the region must transition to cleaner energy post-haste.

We delivered 33 stories, videos, and radio and TV spots on the region’s climate inequities, activism and politics, and its policy and technology options. I served as primary writer, edited many pieces, and managed InvestigateWest’s collaborations with regional and national journalism partners that expanded the series’ production and reach.

Thinking regionally made sense because Cascadia’s jurisdictions are united by heavy reliance on hydropower, a transition from resource extraction to knowledge-based economies, impactful and uneasy relations between Indigenous peoples’ and others, and fast-growing populations and economies. And in 2021 the brutal reality of unprecedented climate extremes — deadly fires, heat waves, floods — drove home the shared threat they face.

As we investigated in the January 2021 opener, Washington, Oregon and BC also have the dubious distinction of ever-growing dependence on fossil fuels and thus carbon emissions. This despite of a decade of climate promises and perceived ‘leadership’, and significant reductions overall in the US and Canada. “The overarching problem is a shortage of political will,” wrote the LA Times about that piece, calling it an “excellent deep dive.”

Throughout, our reporting blended pointed looks at such inconvenient truths and stubborn barriers, with profiles of actors edging forward the various means available to replace fossil fuels.

Diverse voices and exploration of equity issues suffused the series, which also provided training to two emerging journalists of color. And the series regular spanned the US-Canada border, which more often serves as a barrier than a bridge (and was physically closed to travel for most of the year).

Collaborators included regional partners Crosscut (Seattle), The Tyee (Vancouver), Jefferson Public Radio (Ashland, OR) and the South Seattle Emerald, as well as U.S. national partners Grist and the Associated Press. Partners produced about a third of the content and pushed the series out to many more readers via online audiences orders of magnitude larger than InvestigateWest’s.

Notably, The Tyee documented that readers spent over 8 minutes on series pages, which Tyee founding editor David Beers characterized as “an eternity online.”

Shortened and purpose-edited stories for the AP wire, meanwhile, expanded the series’ appeal to audiences beyond the U.S. Pacific Northwest and western Canada. The Houston Chronicle, the Raleigh Observer, the San Francisco Chronicle and other major metro papers consistently tapped the series, along with specialty pubs like Indian Country Today and regional outlets such as Oregon Public Broadcasting. AP cuts also generated regional print runs, including front page pickup in such outlets as The Seattle Times, The (Olympia, WA) Olympian and The News Tribune in Tacoma (image at right).

Additional collaborations expanded our reach to different media. Such as a TV news segment by ABC7 Bay Area based on our profile of a nascent effort in rural Washington to make biochar, a form of charcoal, thus generating cash for forest restoration and simultaneously trapping carbon underground. And student-produced nonfiction radio plays based on the series, broadcast live by San Francisco-based StoryWorks.

Getting to Zero: Decarbonizing Cascadia contributed to the region’s unprecedented climate policy developments last year. For example, Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality cited my report on mapping disparities in climate vulnerability in its rulemaking implementing Governor Kate Brown’s signature climate policy, the Climate Protection Program, intended to force down greenhouse gas emissions from industrial facilities.

Feedback from regional activists and politicians suggest that the series’ relentless focus on policy shortcomings and the readiness of climate solutions contributed to similarly momentous developments in Washington — which passed long-stalled bills that put a price on carbon pollution and to reduce the carbon intensity of diesel and gasoline supplies — and a climate policy overhaul in British Columbia projected to nearly double emissions reductions through 2030.

Recognition of the series went well beyond the LA Times’ Boiling Point newsletter. The Fund for Investigative Journalism, a series funder, celebrated it three times in its “Grantee’s Stories” news posts, citing stories covering the power grid, jobs and forests. The Local Media Association cited the series in a report on solutions reporting. LMA noted research showing that stories with a solutions-angle garner larger audiences, and that people engage more deeply if they “think something can be done about a problem.” It presented my August piece on the West’s shared power grid as a poster child, stating that: “InvestigateWest’s in-depth look at the grid and solutions for becoming more resilient in the face of climate change clearly resonated with readers.”

A companion piece on Cascadia’s grid challenges broke ground on equity coverage, reporting on the displacement of Indigenous peoples by the dozens of wind farms proliferating along the Columbia River Gorge that divides Washington and Oregon. Even longtime energy policy veterans were unaware that wind power had, in effect, fenced the region’s Native Americans out of the lands they’ve foraged for traditional foods and medicines for centuries (or longer).

Fossil fuel lobbies also took note. For example, the gas sector’s Affordable Energy Coalition campaign tweeted our report on civic activism to push natural gas out of buildings. And a tweet by the Propane Council sought to use the series’ final piece (and INVW and the series’ credibility) to declare propane a “low-carbon” fuel.

We set the record straight, calling out Big Propane’s misleading citation as a classic example of fossil fuel industry disinformation.

Click here and scroll down to explore InvestigateWest’s runs of the Getting to Zero: Decarbonizing Cascadia stories contributed by myself, InvestigateWest intern Iris Crawford and fellow Braela Kwan, The Tyee’s Michelle Gamage and Amanda Follett Hosgood, Shannon Osaka and Clayton Aldern at Grist, Crosscut’s Mai Hoang, Ysabelle Kempe (now at the Bellingham Herald), Erik Newmann at JPR, and freelance journalists Andy Engelson, Lizz Giordano, Mandy Godwin, Levi Pulkinnen (now with the Seattle Times) and Jack Russillo.

Here are mine:

Will Upping The Ante Win Climate Activists Support or Scorn?

Extinction Rebellion activist Howard Breen, on Day 27 of his hunger strike, under house arrest at his back-lot cabin in Nanaimo, B.C. Photo credit: Peter Fairley

Climate protest via self-sacrifice is on the rise globally. Extinction Rebellion activists in the UK, for instance, have started to deliberately seek imprisonment. Hunger strikes are seemingly everywhere. And then there’s the ultimate sacrifice, self-immolation. 50-year old Colorado activist Wynn Bruce burned alive on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court on Earth Day last month.

I reported on this abnormal new normal from the inside for The Tyee, visiting veteran British Columbia activist and hunger striker Howard Breen.

What drives Breen and his comrades-in-nonviolence? Can their highly-polarizing sacrificial protests accelerate climate protection, or will they be written-off as misguided and/or mentally ill? Read the story @TheTyee.

Ukraine’s #EnergyFront

Energy is central to the geopolitics of Russia’s war on Ukraine. Putin thought Europe would let him seize Ukraine because the continent depends so heavily on Russian gas, petroleum and coal. The US is helping turn back Russian aggression not just by pumping weapons into Ukraine, but also by bolstering Europe’s energy supplies and thus facilitating European solidarity.

A substation in Ukraine shelled by Russia. Photo credit: State Emergency Service Of Ukraine.

But there’s also an #EnergyFront within Ukraine, which I’ve been covering for @IEEESpectrum. One flashpoint has been Ukraine’s power grid which was, until the war began, tied to the giant UPS/IPS synchronous AC power zone controlled from Moscow. My report, How Russia Sent Ukraine Racing Into the “Energy Eurozone”, chronicles bold moves in the war’s first weeks that isolated Ukraine’s power system and then plugged it into Europe’s.

Ukraine’s power grid operator made the first move hours before Russian tanks and missiles crossed borders in February. The transmission operators’ European counterparts made the next “heroic” move a few weeks later, stabilizing Ukraine’s power supply even as its attackers destroyed lines, substations and power generators.

Another flashpoint is the battle for control of Ukraine’s nuclear power sector, including the four operating plants that supply over half of the country’s electricity. When Russia invaded, Ukraine remained heavily dependent on Russian suppliers of nuclear fuel, waste handling, and parts. Patriots feared sabotage of nuclear power plants and and their defences, either to facilitate the plants’ seizure by Russian forces or to cause a nuclear incident.

Their fears prove justified when the Russian army attacked and captured Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant—Europe’s largest.

My report, Ukraine Scrubbing Nuclear Agencies of Russian Influence, revealed an internal struggle for control of Ukrainian national nuclear power generating company Energoatom whereby several top executives fled the country and a vice president was detained by state security police.

And, for the win, it’s… Who Killed The Supergrid !

In August 2020 over 18 months of reporting paid off with my investigative feature Who Killed The Supergrid – an InvestigateWest production co-published with The Atlantic. Today that work and its immediate impact was recognized with an investigative journalism award from Covering Climate Now. That consortium, created in 2019 by the Columbia Journalism Review, The Nation, The Guardian and WNYC, has since grown into a who’s who of international media, and I’m honoured that they picked my work from more than 600 nominated entries.

In the words of the judges:

This meticulous story revealed the Trump administration’s deliberate effort to bury a federally funded study that provided evidence that a connected super grid would accelerate the growth of wind and solar energy. The story made the abstraction of the nation’s power grid interesting, and Fairley’s explosive disclosures also led to regulatory change.

Individual panelists added commentary during the video awards celebration (see below). Giles Trendle, Managing editor for Al Jazeera English, called my story, “another great example of holding power to account.”

I have thanked many of the talented people who contributed to this success in the Twitter thread at right. But a few bear repeating:

My friend, longtime SEJ colleague, and editor Robert McClure, co-founder of InvestigateWest, jumped at the opportunity to take on my project and helped me take it all the way. I’m grateful that ‘just good enough’ isn’t in Robert’s DNA.

The team at The Atlantic, including Ellen Cushing and Faith Hill, further improved the prose and managed a very thorough fact check.

And the Fund for Investigative Journalism provided financial support plus access to a valuable pre-publication legal review by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

FYI the awards video hosted by ‘America’s weatherman’ Al Roker and NBC Live NOW anchor Savannah Sellers showcases all of the 2021 award program’s winning entries from around the world. It’s inspiring and informative. Definitely worth watching, and sharing…

Getting ‘Cascadia’ off fossil fuels: A cross-border reporting project for 2021

I live in Cascadia, a land of hydropower, mossy forests and clearcuts, increasing human diversity and megafires. We think, on the whole, that we’re green, and our leaders think we’re leading the fight against climate change. Alas despite big promises over a decade ago and countless initiatives since, fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions keep growing across Washington, Oregon and British Columbia.

"Getting to Zero: Decarbonizing Cascadia" and "Investigate West" in gold and dark gray font next to a digital illustration of a mountain against a yellow half-circle.

This year I’m drilling down on what it will take to turn Cascadia’s climate picture around — for my region to get real about moving beyond carbon energy. In January my reporting for Seattle-based nonprofit journalism studio InvestigateWest launched a year-long collaborative project exploring Cascadia’s capacity to slash carbon emissions over the coming decades.

Getting to Zero: Decarbonizing Cascadia profiles the people, policies and firms that can transform the region’s economy and restore its scorched and beetle-infested forests. It’s an ambitious project, and nearly unique in its cross-border frame.

To deliver on the ambition we recruited a team of nonprofit journalism superstars, including Grist.org, The Tyee, Seattle-based Crosscut, and Jefferson Public Radio — the NPR affiliate for southwest Oregon and northwest California. The Associated Press wire carries our series to news outlets across the United States. And we’re already a LONGFORM selection.

Pat Bradley / springshoeanimation.com. Full credits at 1:30