The Fallout from Russia’s Attack on Ukrainian Nuclear Facilities

March 10, 2022
William Potter

This article is part of a larger Ukraine collection by CNS:
Putin’s War with Ukraine: Voices of CNS Experts on the Russian Invasion

The following is an excerpt from War on the Rocks:

Russian forces now occupy two of Ukraine’s five nuclear power stations, Chernobyl (nonoperational) and Zaporizhzhia. A third, Yuzhnoukrainsk, is at risk, with Russian troops reportedly less than 20 miles away. On March 2, the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency deplored Russia’s seizure of these facilities, but Moscow paid little heed. Why have these civilian nuclear facilities been the object of attack, and what are the likely consequences of this high-risk military action by Moscow?

In seizing Ukraine’s nuclear reactors, Russia may be seeking a safe haven for its military forces, or hoping to exploit its control over electricity generation. In doing so, however, it has put the operation of nuclear power facilities at risk, with unpredictable health and environmental consequences. Russia is also undermining widely accepted international legal norms and traditions from which it itself benefits. Until far more stringent and enforceable rules against attacking civilian nuclear facilities are adopted, the entire international community is at great risk.

Military Rationale

It is tempting to portray Russian military action against Ukraine’s nuclear power infrastructure as not only immoral and illegal — which it is — but also irrational. This may well prove to be the case. However, it appears that Russian military planners were motivated to seize Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia — and possibly Yuzhnoukrainsk, Rivne, and Khmelnytskyi as well — in pursuit of several military objectives.

The first, particularly relevant to the seizure of the Chernobyl plant, has to do with its location: about 12 miles from the Belarussian-Ukrainian border along the northern invasion route to Kyiv. Not only did it serve as a useful point of encampment for Russian troops in preparation for the attack on the Ukrainian capital, but it must have been viewed by Russian military planners as a safe haven from counter-attacks due to the huge quantity of radioactive material still present in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. The Russian attack on and seizure of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station near the city of Enerhodar, about 340 miles southeast of Kyiv, may also have been motivated in part by its location along a route of advancing forces. However, unlike at Chernobyl, there was little need in that sector for an encampment point.

A second likely military objective is threatening to…

Continue reading this article at War on the Rocks.

Comments Are Closed