By Matthew Teasdale
As the war in Ukraine rages on, the growing desperation of Russian forces raises dangerous possibilities for nuclear escalation. Russian forces are already launching missile strikes near these facilities, and their occupation increases the likelihood of miscalculation and nuclear disaster.
Writing in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Middlebury Institute of International Studies adjunct professor George M. Moore makes the case for an international standard to protect nuclear power facilities from military action. He argues that the United States should reverse its opposition to sections of the Geneva Conventions that prohibit attacks on nuclear power plants as well as lead an international effort to officially make these attacks illegal through treaty law. His article makes a pertinent case for action.
A Russian-made nuclear incident could yield catastrophic damage short of a nuclear attack. Even if by accident, the triggering of a reactor meltdown would introduce environmental and political challenges paralleled only by nuclear weapons, including transboundary radiation, cross-generational health effects, long-term psychological harm to residents as well quarantine of irradiated lands for decades. Military activity near the Zaporizhzhia power plant could lead to a reactor meltdown with consequences similar to the Chernobyl tragedy.
Setting clear rules, especially when coupled with commitments to assist any country whose nuclear facilities are attacked (positive security assurances), would help reduce the danger posed by war near nuclear facilities. China declared a comparable security assurance in 1995 that it reinforced with the promise to impose sanctions through the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Since the pathway through the UNSC is blocked by Russia, the United States and its allies may impose cooperative sanctions in a similar manner. Western leaders may also provide medical and radiological equipment in the same fashion as they did during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The interest of such a civil nuclear security assurance would lie in its ability to respond to the major political challenges that a meltdown would entail. The Fukushima meltdown of 2011 resulted in the resignation of a Japanese prime minister. Russian forces may wish to inflict the same kind of challenge on President Volodymyr Zelensky. Former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev called Chernobyl “the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union.” A nuclear disaster may appear as the only option to Russian leaders if military force fails. The best way western policymakers can support the Ukrainian leader is by giving him the assurance to manage this potential crisis while he handles a full-scale war in Eastern Ukraine.
President Joe Biden is right to warn Putin about “international consequences” if he resorts to using nuclear weapons in Ukraine, but the Biden administration and international allies must go further. Policymakers must think through what course of action they will take if Moscow, even accidentally, begins to erode the nuclear taboo and weaponize the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. An international treaty like that proposed by Mr. Moore as well as a positive security assurance through a combination of sanctions and aid packages could be critical steps toward reducing the risk of nuclear disaster.