Why the world must protect nuclear reactors from military attacks. Now.

December 15, 2022
George Moore

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 the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Russia’s war in Ukraine is approaching its tenth month with no apparent end in sight. All the while, the international community is still scrambling to respond to the threats of attacks on Ukraine’s nuclear reactors and nuclear facilities.

Russian occupation of the Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia reactor sites early in the war has raised deeply concerning issues, as have more recent Russian attacks on Ukraine’s utility infrastructure. Even though they have not been directly attacked, other Ukrainian reactor facilities and their associated grid connections—at the South Ukraine, Rivne, and Khmelnytskyi nuclear power plants—remain within the range of Russian air, missile, and drone assets. One might think that Ukraine’s counteroffensive to the East and South this Fall might have lessened the threat to these facilities, but that’s not the case. Quite the opposite. The latest Russian actions in Ukraine seem to bear out the often-expressed concern that a diminished Russian military and political regime will lash out viciously in reprisal to cover its failings.

The late November shelling near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant has raised new concerns about the safety of the reactors and spent fuel storage at the site. As has previously happened, the shelling was quickly followed by a series of counterclaims as to whether Russia or Ukraine was to blame. The IAEA, Ukraine, and even Russia’s state-controlled nuclear energy company, Rosatom—which has supervised operations at Zaporizhzhia but has not directly operated the reactors—have again warned of a possible nuclear accident at the plant.

Why the international community should act now

The international community seems to believe that the condemnation of Russia’s military actions in Ukraine is the appropriate approach while the conflict is still raging and that, somehow, a long-term resolution can come only once the war is over. Another belief seems to be that, because of its actions in Ukraine, it may take quite some time before Russia will be willing to rejoin the international community to better protect nuclear facilities from attacks. Others have argued that there is no need for any new legal framework and that the existing regime offers sufficient protections.

These assumptions, however, should be strongly reconsidered.

It is imperative for those countries that consider attacks on nuclear facilities in Ukraine to be extremely threatening to stop waiting for a disaster to happen and, instead, act immediately. Whether actions taken by the international community now would significantly reduce the probability of a nuclear accident in Ukraine is obviously debatable, but there is no doubt that waiting to act until after the war ends won’t do anything to increase the safety of reactors and facilities being threatened in Ukraine. Even though any actions now by the international community may not be enforceable, prompt action might have some impact on Russian political and military planners.

As the odds of a nuclear accident in Ukraine are growing, the international community has a responsibility to act. And to act now.

Extend the rules of war.

While Russia’s actions at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant have received widespread international condemnation, its attacks on reactors and nuclear facilities may not be illegal given the fact that no international agreement specifically addresses the issue.

Continue reading at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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