By Matthew Teasdale
Talks between Kyiv and Moscow began last week on establishing a nuclear safety and security protection zone around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. The Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi, hailed the proposal for a demilitarized zone while Western leaders signed a statement in support of the measure. These discussions, along with meaningful action, could, if followed through, bring Russia and Ukraine back from the precipice of nuclear disaster.
Months of fighting around the Zaporizhzhia plant have brought renewed nuclear danger to the country that less than 40 years ago suffered the Chernobyl tragedy. Russian forces have shelled the plant and also used the facility as a shield behind which to bombard Ukrainian troops. Russian missile strikes near a second nuclear plant only further shake the foundations of Ukrainian memory, Russian sensibility and global responsibility.
The regional risks from a nuclear meltdown go beyond the battle zone. Radioactive fallout could reach lands as far as Turkey, Spain or Sweden and with it, health effects including birth defects, thyroid cancer and psychological harm. The related environmental implications would have a detrimental impact on nearby Ukrainian farming lands, which feed much of Europe and Northern Africa. Blocking grain shipments from Ukraine’s ports may have a disastrous effect for next season, but irradiating topsoil and crop fields could spell hardship for decades.
International efforts to prevent warfare around nuclear power plants are a welcome relief. Grossi’s seven pillars of nuclear security bring awareness to some very needed precautions including the physical integrity of facilities, staff safety, off-site back-up power and radiation monitoring systems. The Director General presented his framework to the Security Council and was endorsed by all permanent and temporary members, including Russia. The members also stressed the importance of IAEA inspectors being present at the Zaporizhzhia plant and their continued surveillance of the situation.
The ultimate safety of Ukraine’s civil nuclear facilities lies in Russia and Ukraine’s willingness to engage in practical negotiations. It would be in both sides’ interests to prevent a massive radiation release, but the process remains elusive. Windowpanes shattered at the nuclear plant this Tuesday as artillery rained on despite the agreement to move toward dialogue. While the source of bombardment remains unknown, it bodes ill for a serious discussion on reactor safety. Examples in Georgia and pre-invasion Ukraine show that Russia instrumentalizes negotiations to advance military and political interests.
Of greater concern are the implications of the referenda that Russia held in occupied Ukrainian territories. Should Russia, as is likely, take the position that the Zaporizhzhia reactors are now Russian territory, it could demand recognition of its annexation as the “price” for allowing demilitarization. Kyiv is unlikely to arrive at any agreement with the Kremlin if there would be any question of its sovereignty. Russia knows this, and the degree to which it seeks to impose what it knows to be unacceptable conditions on its neighbor should be seen as the measure of Moscow’s willingness to take a practical step. These are difficult roadblocks toward a deal that goes beyond the interests of these two states.
Civil nuclear safety is a global issue that demands international attention. An accidental or Russian-inflicted meltdown could have catastrophic effects on the Ukrainian people, European food supplies and the future of peaceful uses for nuclear power. Efforts like those of the IAEA are needed to keep a lid on interstate conflicts which neglect transnational implications. Let’s hope these inklings of discussion pave the way for responsible nuclear policy and do not fall victim to maximalist agendas.