The Fallout from Russia’s Attack on Ukrainian Nuclear Facilities
Editor’s note: Don’t miss our comprehensive guide to Russia’s war against Ukraine.
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.
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 freeze the inhabitants of Kyiv and other cities into submission by turning off their electricity. The Zaporizhzhia plant is the largest power station in Europe and accounts for slightly over 20 percent of the total electricity generated in Ukraine. Were Russia also to take control of the Yuzhnoukrainsk power station, the second largest nuclear plant in Ukraine, it would control approximately 60 percent of Ukraine’s nuclear energy-generating capacity, which accounts for more than 50 percent of all electricity production in Ukraine.
Some Russian publications also have begun to promote a third, very dubious rationale for the seizure of the Chernobyl facility, asserting — with no evidence — that it served as a source of material for a covert Ukrainian radiological weapon or “dirty bomb.” Even wilder conspiracies suggest there was a covert U.S.-backed Ukrainian nuclear weapons program based in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. In their most extreme form, the Russian reports maintain that “Ukraine could acquire nuclear weapons within a few months.” Apparently obsessed with a new focus on radiological plots, they also have depicted a purported plan by Ukrainian militants to blow up a research reactor at the Kharkiv Physical-Technical Institute with the absurd objective of contaminating the city of Kharkiv.
Health and Environmental Risks
Not surprisingly, the first reaction many had to news of the Russian seizure of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station on Feb. 24 was incredulity. How was it conceivable that Russian forces would return to the site of the worst nuclear accident in history — one precipitated by faulty Soviet technology, foolhardy secrecy within the nuclear establishment, and bureaucratic stupidity in Moscow? To date, the worst-case scenario, a massive release of radioactivity from Chernobyl site or Zaporizhzhia, has been avoided. But the longer-term prospects for safe maintenance of these facilities are not promising as workers must function under duress with inadequate rest and without normal shift rotations.
Also very worrisome is news that the electric power supply affecting the Chernobyl complex was disconnected on March 9 due to continued fighting. Although not an immediate danger, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the agency acknowledged that it had lost contact with remote data transmission from the Chernobyl site, and Director General Rafael Grossi again expressed his concern for the wellbeing of the staff at the plant.
Fortunately, all the reactors that are operating in Ukraine are of a very different design than those in Chernobyl and, importantly, have containment structures. (The most dangerous material at Chernobyl site also is encased in a massive steel and concrete sarcophagus that would be hard, although probably not impossible, to breach). The most acute danger for these operational reactors would be the loss of outside power to cool the reactor core by circulating water. While the reactors have alternative cooling systems, these also could fail due to direct damage from munitions or by munitions-induced fire.
Another danger is the inadvertent dispersal of radiation from spent nuclear fuel rods stored in pools of water at the reactor sites. This would happen if the water in the pools were to leak out, leading the fuel to overheat. While the amount of spent fuel stored on site is relatively small, a much larger quantity of highly radioactive waste (not limited to spent fuel) is stored at five regional sites throughout Ukraine. One of them near Kyiv was reportedly already hit by a Russian airstrike on Feb. 27. That this did not lead to the release of any radioactive debris was largely the result of sheer luck and cannot be counted on in the future.
Legal and Normative Ramifications
There is a long history of attacks by both state and non-state actors on nuclear reactor facilities. These attacks, many of which resulted in damage or destruction, go back at least as far as 1961, and involve sabotage by insiders, cyber intrusions, and kinetic strikes. The targets have included both research and power reactors in the United States and more than half a dozen other countries. Perhaps the most famous of these attacks was conducted by the Israeli Air Force in 1981 against the unfinished and not yet “hot” French-built Osirak research reactor outside of Baghdad. Also notable was the U.S. attack on two Iraqi research reactors during the First Gulf War in 1991.
Among the factors that distinguish the premeditated Russian attacks on Ukraine’s nuclear plants (excluding here the possibly inadvertent attack on the nuclear waste site near Kyiv) from prior incidents is the fact that they occurred during wartime and involved civilian nuclear power facilities, some of which were operational.
Although a number of multilateral efforts have been undertaken during the past three decades to prohibit attacks on nuclear facilities, no formal legal instruments specifically proscribing attacks have yet been adopted. Instead, we are left with a smorgasbord of restraints, generally lacking enforcement mechanisms, embodied in the Geneva Convention, international humanitarian law, and multiple International Atomic Energy Agency pronouncements, including the statement cited above.
In addition to violating this body of legal and political constraints, Russian attacks on Ukrainian nuclear facilities are a direct assault on the international norms regarding nuclear violence that have developed since the advent of the nuclear age. These norms underpin a taboo or tradition against nuclear violence in its many forms. Ironically, only a few months ago, this taboo appeared to have been strengthened by the joint statement made by the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council that a nuclear war could not be won and must never be fought. While most international attention correctly is focused on the departure from that principle due to the reckless nuclear weapons threats made by President Vladimir Putin during the past two weeks, Russian attacks on civilian nuclear power facilities also have the effect of weakening the norm against nuclear violence.
At this moment, Russian war planners regard Ukraine’s nuclear power plants as weapons in their campaign against Kyiv. However, as a nation with many nuclear power stations, Russia is undermining norms from which it continues to benefit. Nuclear reactors everywhere are “Trojan horses,” potentially providing targets for cyber operations, sabotage, or other forms of attack. As such, Moscow also has a major stake in reinforcing a strong norm against attacking nuclear power plants.
William Potter is Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar Professor of Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. He also directs the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.