Living Through Nuclear Crisis in Ukraine

Ukrainians know intimately what it feels like to be 90 seconds from midnight.

Last week, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists updated their Doomsday Clock to 90 seconds to midnight in an annual exercise indicating how close the world is to destruction. This is the closest the Clock has ever been to midnight, reigniting global fears of nuclear annihilation unmatched since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

While the Doomsday Clock’s warning remains theoretical to most, for the past year, 40 million Ukrainians learned firsthand what 90 seconds to midnight looks like. Russia’s omnipresent nuclear threat has become an accepted reality for those of us storing iodine pills in shelters and listening closely to news from our nuclear power plants, which have become a flashpoint in the war on our people. As the Clock inches toward midnight, the world must come together to prevent nuclear annihilation.

THE NUCLEAR THREAT HANGING OVER UKRAINE

Ask any adult in Ukraine about the chances of “getting nuked.” They will likely smile sadly, shrug, and make an uncomfortable joke. Ask a child the same, and you would be shocked at the depth of understanding they have of the dangerous situation at hand. With heavy hearts, we have accepted that a nuclear disaster might — and probably will — occur in our lifetime, though going about our lives with this looming threat at the back of our minds is easier on some days than others. This reality is something my generation had previously only heard as stories from our parents and grandparents — stories we would rather forget.

With heavy hearts, we have accepted that a nuclear disaster might — and probably will — occur in our lifetime, though going about our lives with this looming threat at the back of our minds is easier on some days than others.

Even without using nuclear weapons, Russia is capable of creating a nuclear disaster in Europe. Humanity has worked for decades to ensure that human error would never again lead to another Chernobyl accident and to develop safeguards from natural disasters to avoid a reactor meltdown like Fukushima in Japan. Scholars led us to believe there is a “nuclear taboo” and that weapons of mass destruction can even serve as a great “equalizer” in complex geopolitical relations. Ukrainians’ blissful trust in such assurances tremored with the first pictures of Russian trenches dug in the highly radioactive soil of Chernobyl. It shattered completely in the middle of the night on March 4, 2022, when Russian forces opened fire at close range at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant.

Zaporizhzhia, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, has been under Russian occupation since Russia’s attack in March 2022. This power plant accounts for more than a fifth of electricity production in Ukraine, enough to power 4 million households. Now, the nuclear power units are a ticking time bomb, as the facilities are heavily mined and used as a military base with stored explosives, putting the entire region at risk. Accentuating this threat is the fact that Ukrainian personnel is routinely and arbitrarily detained, abducted, tortured, and deported by the occupying Russian forces.

Ukraine has three other nuclear power plants. Rivne is some 40 miles from the border with Belarus, Russia’s close ally, and South Ukraine Nuclear Power Plant is 120 miles from the frontline, where heavy artillery is used daily. Although the nuclear units are more modern than the ones in Chernobyl and are reportedly protected enough to withstand a plane crash, the destruction of the backup diesel generators could lead to a devastating meltdown.

Russia’s nuclear threats only continue to grow. Most recently, there were hints that a preventive strike might become part of their military doctrine. Simply put, Russia might shed the principle of “no first use” and decide to strike whenever it “perceives” a threat to its security. Already, after every major Ukrainian victory, Ukrainians wonder if today will be the day they make good on their threats. The new doctrine would mean that a strike could come entirely unprovoked. Such escalation is not a surprise for us, who watch every year as Russian tanks bearing the words “To Berlin” drive through the Victory Day military parade while the crowd shouts, “We can repeat.” Fearmongering is a well-known Russian tactic that aims to demoralize Ukrainians. It is also used to scare our allies into negotiations and surrender, claiming that the West’s collective support for Ukraine will lead to World War III.

Russia’s blackmail works because of the popular fear of the bomb. From my own vantage point in Kyiv, I have heard the bombs turning my city to rubble and felt the twisted relief that it is still conventional weapons that might kill me rather than a nuke. Sometimes we even pray they will use chemical weapons instead of a nuclear bomb, knowing the generational impacts of nuclear fallout and contamination. Yet, this is where the Ukrainian resistance shines. In our unprotected apartments, there is absolutely nothing we can do to defend ourselves. Psychological resilience, and a fair share of humor, are our tools of defiance against Russia’s pressure.

The problem for Ukraine is thus two-fold: we are face-to-face with the world’s largest nuclear arsenal with no collective security protection. At the same time, our nuclear power infrastructure is taking heavy blows. There are three implications of these threats. First, of course, the potential for a nuclear catastrophe. Second, damaged critical nuclear power infrastructure leading to blackouts and humanitarian crises. And third, less production of “green” nuclear energy means that “dirty” sources — mostly coal — are used to compensate for power shortages. This exacerbates the already-devastating environmental damage from both the ongoing invasion and Russia’s previous annexation of Crimea.

We have yet to see the extent of the damage to Ukraine’s green energy infrastructure since majority of the solar and wind power facilities are located in the south and east of the country, the most conflict-affected regions.

UKRAINE’S PROBLEM IS THE WORLD’S PROBLEM

The Doomsday Clock announcement is concerning for Ukraine and the world, but where do we move from here?

In a better world, nuclear power stations would not be targeted in conflict, and international nuclear arms control treaties would actually work. However, Russia has time and again failed to deliver on its promises and respect the treaties it signed. The International Atomic Energy Agency, the world’s nuclear watchdog, has attempted to negotiate a safe zone around the Zaporizhzhia plant but to little effect.

There are cases where the international community has compelled Russia to change its behavior. When Russia tried to withdraw from the grain corridor, a multilateral initiative to ensure the shipment of vital products via Black Sea, Ukraine, the UN, and Turkey worked together to maintain the corridor, simply informing Russia that the passage would remain open. Sadly, it wasn’t the UN’s authority but the Turkish fleet, that allowed this to happen, but it set an important precedent.

There are no simple solutions, but no civilian deserves nuclear annihilation. Hopefully, that matters enough for the world to act. Otherwise, doomsday may arrive quicker than we realize.

The clock is ticking.

Anna Romanova is a risk intelligence analyst, specializing in technology in international security and critical infrastructure. She holds degrees in Information Security from the National University of Kyiv and Security, Intelligence, and Strategic Studies from University of Glasgow.