by Matthew Teasdale
One year ago, Russian forces captured the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant (ZNPP), effectively beginning a gamble with civil nuclear disaster. Russian planners allegedly intended to blackmail Ukraine and other European nations with a potential major radiological incident. Beyond just Ukraine, a nuclear disaster at Zaporizhzhia could unleash radiation and ensuing health issues on many European peoples. To signal that such threats are unacceptable, western policymakers could threaten sanctions on the Russian nuclear industry as well as facilitate an internationally monitored nuclear safety and security zone. A tactful combination of deterrence and disincentive may convince the Kremlin that menacing a second Chernobyl is no winning strategy.
The Royal United Services Institute writes that Russia intended to use Ukrainian nuclear power plants as military assets against the West. These facilities served as a means, “to obtain leverage for blackmailing European countries with the risk of radiation pollution.” Kremlin officials were willing to risk, “possible accidents at nuclear power plants if [European countries] attempted to intervene.” The report goes on to say that planners also stationed “troops and military personnel, equipment, command posts and ammunition depots” at these facilities to shelter them from attack. Moscow sought to occupy Ukrainian nuclear facilities in an effort to control Ukraine’s energy grid.
Russian occupation of the nuclear power plant has since imperiled the facility. Rafael Grossi, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has said that, “every principle of nuclear safety has been violated.” The IAEA is unable to access key parts of the reactors at Zaporizhzhia, as the occupying Russian forces and surrounding shelling make it too dangerous for inspectors. The Ukrainian state nuclear company, Energoatom, reports that Russian soldiers are preventing employees from taking shelter in basements, further imperiling the staff. Ukrainian officials also claim that Russian soldiers are torturing plant employees, increasing the stress these staff face and the likelihood of human error. Though the source of shelling near the plant remains unclear, Russia’s invasion and seizure of the facility is irrefutably the source of conflict.
Fighting around Zaporizhzhia could yield catastrophic damage short of a nuclear attack. Consistent shelling, like that recorded by the IAEA, has severed sensitive electrical lines and threatened the integrity of the plant’s cooling systems. If left unattended, an ensuing power outage could trigger a reactor meltdown and induce environmental and political challenges paralleled only by nuclear weapons. These include transboundary radiation, cross-generational health effects, long-term psychological harm to residents as well the quarantine of irradiated lands for decades. In a worst-case scenario, Military activity near the ZNPP could lead to a reactor meltdown with consequences similar to the Chernobyl tragedy.
The United Nations’ effort to arrive at a nuclear safety and security zone around the ZNPP has been stalled for months. The IAEA began working with Ukraine and the Russian Federation to implement this zone in September 2022. However, an official IAEA press release from February 2023 states, “While some progress has been made … it remains too slow and more determined efforts are required from all sides.” The Director revealed that military activities and objectives are finding their way into discussions and hampering resolutions. Grossi recently made a visit to Moscow where he spoke to the CEO of Russia’s state nuclear company, Rosatom, who expressed his approval of a security zone. However, Russian President Vladimir Putin snubbed the IAEA director and it’s unclear if the Russian military will similarly approve. Growing intensity in the war is unfortunately pitting military opportunism against global safety.
Deterrence and Disincentive
A strategy to address the weaponization of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant could include a combination of deterrence and disincentive. This should first include cooperative sanctions between the United States and Europe on Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear power agency. Possible measures targeting Russia’s nuclear industry could disincentivize Putin from playing with nuclear fire. Secondly, the IAEA’s proposal for a nuclear safety and security zone needs more than just United Nations support. The United States, Ukraine and western members of the Security Council should insist Russia agree to demilitarized zones around Ukraine’s nuclear power plants. With the risk of sanctions on Russia’s civil nuclear industry, Moscow will understand the limited strategic value of Ukraine’s civil nuclear industry.
The threat of sanctions on Rosatom would make for serious disincentives to any civil nuclear tampering. Euro-American sanctions, subsequent secondary sanctions, and industry-relevant embargos would sever Rosatom’s investment deals in China, Iran, Turkey, Belarus, Hungary, India and other states. Like Gazprom, Rosatom functions as a tool for the Kremlin to build energy partnerships and dependencies for global leverage as well as financial gain. Threatening Russia’s foreign partnerships would form a proportionate punishment to any intention to jeopardize Ukraine’s relationship with Europe. Additionally, Ukrainian intelligence asserts that the state company is also providing goods to Russian military units and sanctioned weapons manufacturers. Rosatom’s participation in the war is already beyond civilian.
While it is true that Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic are heavily dependent on Russian nuclear fuel, the United States and European Union can work together to diversify supply chains. One Swedish company already did so when it stopped all uranium imports from Russia last February. It then replaced all its imports with Canadian and Australian suppliers.
The implications of a nuclear disaster at Zaporizhzhia go beyond Russia and Ukraine. As a continent-wide liability, western allies must ensure that Putin does not turn Zaporizhzhia into Fukushima. Skillful diplomacy can deter and assuage the Kremlin from taking reckless steps toward nuclear disaster. Threatening to crack down on Russia’s civil nuclear industry as well as proposing an internationally monitored nuclear safety and security zone around Ukraine’s nuclear power plants could effectively disarm Russia. Rafael Grossi recently lamented that leaders may become complacent and see efforts to protect the ZNPP as a boy crying wolf. In this case, the wolf could be real and needs to be defanged.