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Ukraine, power plant, Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant

Examining Russia’s Militarization of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant

Russia doesn't want to be told what it can and cannot do.

Words: Terrell Jermaine Starr
Pictures: Alina Fedorchenko

Fears of a Russian nuclear strike against Ukraine have persisted since President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion last year. But his militarization of nuclear power plants in Ukraine — first with Chernobyl last year and now with the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant — has redefined what nuclear threats look like and pressured the international community to respond in ways it had not anticipated. 

Nuclear arms and nonproliferation experts interviewed for this story have said they cannot recall any situations in which an occupying military weaponized a civilian nuclear facility. The plant has certainly been a key point of discussion in NATO, as Ukraine is working to join the alliance in the near future. Fears over a man-made accident at Europe’s largest power plant have become a security issue and alliance members are trying to figure out how to manage the situation on the ground  — and how to go beyond simply declaring Russia’s actions as clearly illegal

Striking A Fine Balance

“We have heard the Secretary General of NATO speaking specifically about the security of the Zaporizhzhia power plant,” Orysia Lutsevych, deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia Program and head of the Ukraine Forum at Chatham House, said. “So it’s taken seriously. Ukraine can raise these issues in consultations with NATO allies. That is, Ukraine now has a new additional instrument to bring to NATO’s attention, which didn’t exist before.”

For much of June and part of July 2023, Kyiv officials have been raising the alarm over Russian plans to create a man-made accident at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. Ukraine’s top military intelligence official now says threats of Russia compromising the nuclear plant have abated. Yet, the up-and-down drama over what could happen has not disrupted the day-to-day life here. Locals have generally taken the threats in stride. Ukrainian officials have had to strike a delicate balance between warning the public of how serious the threat is, getting the international community to pressure Russia into leaving the plant, and not causing hysteria in the local population.

This isn’t the first time nuclear powers have worried about the weaponization of their power plants. India and Pakistan have an agreement to mitigate such threats. 

“Let’s also understand that Ukrainians are aware of this because of the Chernobyl disaster,” Lutsevych said. “So, it’s kind of a familiar territory for many people. Of course, there is anxiety in the population, but I think a majority of people are staying quite calm about it. We don’t see a new influx of refugees out of Ukraine because of that risk.”

Different Than Chernobyl

Russian troops did occupy the Chernobyl Nuclear Power plant in February of 2022, but fled more than a month later after they failed to capture the capital. The stakes are much higher at Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, which the Russians have occupied since March 2022. The plant’s reactors and the cooling pond have reportedly been mined. As Inkstick Media previously reported, Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant is much more secure than Chernobyl, so a disaster of that scale is unlikely to occur. 

Patricia Lewis, a nuclear physicist and Research Director for International Security at Chatham House, explained that the reactors are surrounded by multiple layers of concrete and could even withstand the force of a commercial airline crash. Though, she said, how vulnerable the reactors are to a breach would depend on where any explosives are placed. Lewis added that Zaporizhzhia’s reactor types are different from those at Chernobyl and much safer. The Chernobyl reactors had graphite at their core, which burns. Those at Zaporizhzhia are pressurized water reactors that are moderated and cooled differently. 

What Can the International Community Do?

This isn’t the first time nuclear powers have worried about the weaponization of their power plants. India and Pakistan have an agreement to mitigate such threats. Each year, the two nations exchange information on their nuclear installations, even through the toughest times of their very volatile relationship. 

“There’s certainly been worries about it for a long time because they’re sort of sitting targets and we see so many attacks on infrastructure,” Lewis said. “Clearly, Russia has been upping the ante on this and making everyone scared because they want to increase the level of fear in the Ukrainian population, particularly in the European NATO countries’ population in the hope that that fear will force people onto the street to ask their governments to stop supplying Ukraine with arms. That doesn’t seem to be working and [the Russians] just keep doubling down.”

There have been efforts to demilitarize Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. Rafael Mariano Grossi, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has been trying since September 2022 to establish a safety zone scheme for Zaporizhzhia but he ditched the idea this spring.  

“It’s a bit like the special monitoring mission that was in Donbas,” Lutsevych said. “It is there to record violations, but it has very little capacity to actually protect or create [safeguards]. Ukraine was pushing for a safe zone around the nuclear station, demilitarizing it and removing Russian personnel from the premises. This has never been enforced. I think this is the problem of IAEA: actual implementation.”

What it comes down to, Lewis says, is that Russia does not want to be told what it can and can’t do. Yet, the IAEA is charged with promoting safe and secure nuclear energy. That’s what it’s supposed to do. Yet, Russia is making sure the agency doesn’t get in the way of weaponizing a peaceful facility for its military gain. 

“That’s the original reason it was set up prior to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (TNP),” Lewis said. “So, they’re really trying hard to get people to understand the significance of this and the importance of trying to keep these types of installations protected in conflict, just like we have for other parts of crucial infrastructure, like hospitals and so on. Why can’t we do the same for these?”

Terrell Jermaine Starr

Terrell Jermaine Starr is the host and founder of Black Diplomats, a podcast that discusses foreign policy from a social justice perspective. He is also a resident of Inkstick’s and Bombshelltoe’s Creative Capsule Residency.

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