Securing Zaporizhzhia with Diplomacy and Deterrence
The destruction of Ukraine’s Kakhovka dam on June 6 has exacerbated concerns over the safety of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant. To cool its six reactors and its spent fuel pools, the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP), located some 93 miles upstream from the dam, relies on water from the Kakhovka Reservoir, which has dropped rapidly since the dam break. The ZNPP continues to operate safely for the time being and there is no immediate threat to the plant. However, if water supply remains precarious and as military activity in the Zaporizhzhia region intensifies, the risk of an accident at the plant cannot be ruled out. While a catastrophe approximating the scale of Chernobyl is highly unlikely, an incident resulting in the release of some hazardous material, with potential environmental and health risks to the communities exposed, is possible.
To prevent this, Ukraine’s allies should work with Ukrainian authorities and the International Atomic Energy Agency to maintain up-to-date and accurate information on the situation at the ZNPP and ensure the continued availability and operation of critical equipment and systems. Crucially, Western countries should make clear to Moscow that a Russian-engineered incident at the ZNPP would lead them to double down on their support for Ukraine rather than reduce it. Pre-emptively working with Ukrainian authorities to help to minimize the impact of an accident may also help to reduce the attractiveness of that option to Moscow.
Concerns for the safety of the ZNPP resulting from the destruction of the Kakhovka dam are just the latest in the series of threats faced by this and other Ukrainian nuclear facilities. Russia captured the ZNPP on 4 March 2022 and has occupied it since. Russian forces subsequently stationed military equipment at the facility (including inside reactor turbine halls), placed defensive positions on the roofs of reactor buildings, and reportedly mined the plant. Russian attacks on the Ukrainian electric grid have severed the facility’s power supply seven times. In the first weeks of the full-scale invasion, Russia also occupied the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, digging trenches in the contaminated soil and looting or destroying facility equipment.
Russia’s militarization and irresponsible management of the ZNPP have placed the facility at acute risk of an accident. Moscow’s repeated disregard for civilian lives and nuclear safety in Ukraine also makes it entirely conceivable that Russian forces could purposely engineer a radiological incident at the plant for operational or strategic benefit. For instance, if Moscow anticipates losing the facility, Russian forces may intentionally cause a radiological incident before abandoning the site. Such action would divert significant Ukrainian resources away from offensive operations. Moscow may also see such nuclear sabotage as a means of intimidating Ukraine’s international partners into scaling back support for Kyiv’s military effort.
Instrumentalizing Nuclear Safety
The probability of a radiological incident at the ZNPP on the scale of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster is low. Besides their safer design, modern reactors benefit from reinforced containment structures. The types of munitions being used around Zaporizhzhia at the moment — and which are likely to be used in the course of the Ukrainian offensive and Russian defensive operations — do not threaten the ZNPP containment structures. The 2011 accident at Japan’s Fukushima-Daiichi plant is a more appropriate point of reference for the worst-case scenario at the ZNPP. Even so, the fact that the ZNPP’s reactors have been shut down for months make even a Fukushima-level disaster unlikely — as long as key systems and redundancies remain available. Even if water levels in the Kakhovka Reservoir fall to a point where the ZNPP is no longer able to pump water from it, the facility’s large cooling pond and other alternative water supplies are expected to be sufficient for some months. Similarly, the site’s emergency diesel generators have so far mitigated the threat posed by repeated disconnections from the external power grid.
Yet, operating on emergency diesel generators and water reserves should not be normalized. Both may be difficult to maintain in a war zone, their capacity may become stretched, or they may be intentionally sabotaged by the Russian occupiers. Fuel deliveries for the emergency generators may be interrupted. Critical equipment may be looted or destroyed. The cooling pond that the ZNPP would rely on if the reservoir was no longer available could be damaged. More of the ZNPP’s reactors could be taken out of cold shutdown, thus placing added pressure on water supply. The availability of qualified staff, who know how to operate the plant in an emergency, also remains a concern.
The fact that damage to the ZNPP’s support and emergency systems would not lead to an immediate catastrophe should be both reassuring and worrying. It means there would be time to prevent the loss of power or water from escalating into a serious accident, at least assuming the necessary expertise and equipment were available. But this time may also be leveraged by Moscow to essentially hold hostage a nuclear power plant on the brink of an accident, and thus ratchet up pressure for concessions.
Key Lines of Effort
Ultimately, the only sustainable resolution to the threats facing the ZNPP is the withdrawal of Russian troops and personnel from the plant and the return of the facility to Ukrainian authorities. In the meantime, though, Ukraine’s partners should pursue four lines of effort to help to prevent a radiological incident at the plant.
First, pressure should be placed on Russian authorities and Rosatom management at the ZNPP to grant the International Atomic Energy Agency all requested access. This is critical to enable the agency to continue regular reporting on the status of the ZNPP’s operations — including the state of water levels and key support systems. While the agency may not always wish to publicize key thresholds, it should continue to warn of critical developments and correct alarmist narratives. The agency should also be empowered to report on any denial of access or failures to cooperate. While water supply remains a concern, it is also important that the agency consider and report on ways to minimize water usage at the plant. This should include exploring options for moving ZNPP’s unit five reactor from hot to cold shutdown as soon as this can be safely done.
Second, diplomatic pressure should be applied to create a deconfliction mechanism between the Ukrainian and Russian militaries to allow for the continued supply of water, diesel fuel, emergency equipment, and spare parts, as well as the rotation of workers and International Atomic Energy Agency personnel. This could be supervised by international observers who could identify any disruptions and establish responsibility for them. Moscow places considerable strategic and economic importance on its civilian nuclear sector and exports. With this in mind, appealing to Russia’s desire to maintain its reputation as a responsible nuclear operator may be one admittedly imperfect way of incentivizing cooperation. Stressing the damage that a radiological incident could have on the global nuclear sector and demands for the construction of new nuclear facilities worldwide might also help motivate Russia to keep the ZNPP operating safely.
Third, Ukraine’s partners should make clear to Russia that it does not stand to benefit from engineering — or carelessly permitting — an accident at the ZNPP. Russia does not want further involvement in the conflict from Ukraine’s partners and may calculate that a radiological incident would act as a deterrent or result in pressure on Ukraine to negotiate. Kyiv’s partners should stress to Moscow that they would respond to a radiological incident at the ZNPP by providing Ukraine with more — not less — support. The precise nature of that support would need to be negotiated among Ukraine’s allies and with Kyiv to ensure that it is credible.
Fourth, the attractiveness of manufacturing a radiological incident could be further decreased by reducing its likely impact on Ukrainian military forces. This could be achieved by providing them chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear training and equipment to ensure that they have the right capabilities to respond to the situation. Czechia, Germany, and the United Kingdom, in particular, have considerable expertise in this area. By collaborating to provision and train Ukrainian forces, they could help to convince Russia that there would be little military utility in causing or allowing an accident at the ZNPP.
These efforts would not be able to address all the threats to the safe operation of the ZNPP. The critical issue of staffing shortages is particularly difficult to resolve. While the delivery of additional emergency equipment and spare parts could in theory be negotiated, finding qualified personnel willing to work in a Russian-occupied facility in an active war zone will be much more challenging. At the same time, replacing Ukrainian staff with Russian personnel — as Russia appears to have considered doing — threatens to normalize Russian presence and control at the illegally occupied facility.
The Kakhovka dam attack highlights once again the scale of the risks Ukraine faces. Since its invasion, Russia has repeatedly demonstrated its disregard for nuclear safety. It has also made a series of decisions premised on false expectations of how Ukraine’s partners might respond. Diplomacy and deterrence can help lower the risks of an accident and make sure that Moscow is not mistaken about how Western governments would react to a radiological incident at the ZNPP.
Darya Dolzikova is a research fellow with the Royal United Services Institute’s Proliferation and Nuclear Policy program. Her work has appeared in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Lawfare and Prospect Magazine.
Jack Watling is senior research fellow for land warfare at the Royal United Services Institute. He is also a global fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC.
Image: Wikimedia Commons