Russia’s nuclear brinkmanship in Ukraine is once again raising alarms — this time over the fate of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe.
The Ukrainian government has said that Russian shelling on Saturday had damaged radiation sensors at the plant. On Monday, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said that attacks on the plant were “suicidal.”
Russia’s invading armies seized the Zaporizhzhia plant in March in a dangerous firefight that damaged one reactor building, seen worldwide on security cameras. The plant — and the defunct Chernobyl nuclear waste site — continued to operate with Ukrainian workers overseen under duress by Russian nuclear agency personnel.
As the war in Ukraine moved south last month, Russia turned the Zaporizhzhia complex into an artillery park for rocket launchers and in return received Ukrainian drone strikes. On Aug. 2, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Grossi called the plant “completely out of control” in an interview with the Associated Press.
On Aug. 2, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Grossi called the plant “completely out of control” in an interview with the Associated Press.
“I think it is absolutely warranted to say it is as serious as it was in March,” said Ferenc (Jacob) Dalnoki-Veress, a scientist-in-residence at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. “I don’t want to overblow the situation either. Yes, the reactors have containment and are otherwise protected, but there is always the possibility that events can escalate.”
Appropriation of the Zaporizhzhia plant — where at least two still-working reactors require careful maintenance to safely operate — to use as a shielded artillery park is a dangerous new low in nuclear brinkmanship, perhaps intended to sway NATO against support for a southern offensive from Ukraine, suggested an Aug. 3 analysis from the Institute for the Study of War.
“Russia is now using the plant as a military base to fire at Ukrainians, knowing that they can’t and won’t shoot back,” said Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday speaking at the United Nations, because of the possibility of striking a reactor or radioactive waste stored on the site and contaminating southern Ukraine. “That brings the notion of having a human shield to an entirely different and horrific level.”
“We are totally in uncharted territory, said Dalnoki-Veress. “It is the ultimate in state-based nuclear terrorism.”
A spokesman for the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration said the federal government is monitoring the situation at Zaporizhzhia and “actively support[s] the efforts” of the IAEA to assist Ukraine.
Nuclear balancing act
Nuclear reactors like Zaporizhzhia’s are essentially balancing acts, where steam boils off from the heat generated by radioactive fuel rods. The steam bath both cools the reactor and spins electricity-generating turbines in an orchestrated trade-off between power demands and temperature limits. There are at least two main threats to this orchestration at Zaporizhzhia, said John Erath, senior policy director for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. One is of a disaster caused by a cooling failure at the plant and the second of warfare itself causing an even worse calamity.
The first possibility was outlined by the IAEA’s Rossi in his remarks, where a lack of spare parts, faltering maintenance and cutoff of outside backup power leads to the loss of cooling capacities. That could culminate in a meltdown of fuel inside an overheated reactor or cooling ponds for spent fuel rods — similar to the Fukushima Daiichi reactor disaster in 2011 — where partial reactor meltdowns, explosions at spent fuel pools and radioactive gas venting led to a 19-mile-wide evacuation zone.
The Zaporizhzhia plant’s operators would have to carefully shutter its reactors if cooling fails, cutting off a fifth of the electrical power generated in Ukraine. “These reactors are 40 years old, and parts need to be periodically replaced just like routine service checks in a car,” said Dalnoki-Veress.
The second possible scenario is even worse: all-out warfare at the site. Reportedly, rocket launchers are stationed between reactors and armored personal carriers are parked in one turbine room, according to the New York Times, blocking a fire lane for emergency workers. Although modern reactors are covered with a steel shell and hardened concrete meant to withstand airplane strikes, they are not built to withstand missile strikes, and spent fuel pools don’t have the same protection as reactors. The March firefight at the plant blocked emergency personnel from the plant after a reactor building was damaged. Breaching the reactors or even the spent fuel would spew radioactive particles across southern Ukraine and Russia.
The use of Zaporizhzhia’s reactors as hostages to war won’t stop with just that plant, with Russia’s statements about its goal of the complete control of Ukraine, warned Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety with the Union of Concerned Scientists. Ukraine has four nuclear power plants, and the shuttered Chernobyl (Chornobyl in Ukrainian) plant, the site of the worst nuclear accident in history, has already served as a military post in the invasion.
“Unless there are going to be rules that both sides are willing to obey, that nuclear plants should be off limits, neutral zones, then you are going to raise the risks of something catastrophic happening,” said Lyman, noting that Russia has widely violated rules of warfare throughout the invasion. “This is something people should think about, as we talk about building new nuclear reactors elsewhere, in even less stable places around the world.”
The world has been edging up to nuclear power plant brinkmanship in recent years, noted Dalnoki-Veress, with Azerbaijan in 2020 threatening the Metsamor nuclear power plant in Armenia and a Syrian missile last year landing close to Israel’s Dimona reactor complex. “But nothing like this,” he said.
The recent calls from the IAEA and the State Department for Russia to withdraw its military forces from the reactor are not an accident, said Erath, coming as the United Nations begins a Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review in New York, which includes Russia as a signatory.
“Usually, these conferences are judged on whether they produced an agreed-upon final document,” he said. “That’s a very bad outcome here because what the nuclear proliferation community should be concerned about, more than anything else, are what are the implications of Russia’s aggression? Not only are they attacking a neighboring country, but they are using nuclear weapons as a threat to protect themselves from outside interference on Ukraine’s side. That has never been done before.”
At Zaporizhzhia, for now, the Ukrainian power plant operators maintaining the reactors under duress with the Russian military on their site are the biggest present concern, with reports of torture of civilians in occupied southern Ukraine, said Dalnoki-Veress. “All of this is terrifying. It is as if it is a scene in a bad movie where the airplane is hijacked, but the pilot is forced to land the plane, except this has been going on for many months,” he said.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.