Nuclear Power Plants In War Zones: Risks And Remedies – Analysis
By Dr. Manpreet Sethi*
In January 2023, an American non-governmental organisation, the Arms Control Association, announced the winner of its annual Arms Control Person(s) of the Year. Based on an online poll of 3,500 participants from 80 countries, the award recognised the staff of the Ukrainian nuclear energy generating company, Energoatom. Besides honouring the heroism of nuclear operators in difficult circumstances, the award also drew attention to the risks faced by nuclear facilities in war zones.
Ukraine, with its 15 reactors across four nuclear power plants, has highlighted a new vulnerability of civilian nuclear infrastructure caught up in inter-state conflict. Deriving 50 per cent of its total electricity from nuclear energy, the Russia-Ukraine war has not only disrupted reactor operations to impact overall electricity availability, but also endangered plant safety and security.
It has been particularly worrisome to watch both sides use nuclear power plants (NPPs) to score tactical victories, ignoring the strategic risks caused by their actions. Ukraine, for instance, has reported that after taking over these sites, Russian troops have used them to shelter themselves and their ammunition. Russia, on the other hand, has accused Ukraine of attacks on Russian-occupied plants to induce disaster. Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu called it “nuclear terrorism from Kyiv.” He also alleged that the nuclear plants still under Ukrainian control, such as at Rivne, are being used to store Western supplied arms.
Concerns around Safety and Security of NPPs
Concerns around risks to nuclear power plants in Ukraine surfaced on the very first day of the launch of Russia’s military operations. On 24 February 2022 itself, Ukraine claimed that Russian troops had taken over the Chernobyl nuclear plant, which was on the path of the invading troops, only 12 miles from the Belarus-Ukraine border. Though Ukrainian staff was allowed to operate the plant, Russia reportedly held 200 technical personnel captive at the site for 13 days. Besides being a harrowing experience for the operators, fears of radioactive release were exacerbated with electricity disruptions to the spent fuel pool, where fuel is kept under water for heat removal. Repairing the transmission lines to restore electricity while a war was underway revealed its own challenges.
The next source of concern were the six reactors at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, some of which were operational. On 2 March 2022, Russia announced that it had taken control of the territory around the plant. Two days later, Ukraine reported that an auxiliary building, 300 metres from unit 1, had been hit, leading to a fire, though no ‘essential’ equipment was damaged. The same day, Russian troops clashed with Ukrainian guards and took control of the plant. Soon thereafter, Rosatom personnel were also stationed at the reactors. The presence of two separate sets of nuclear operators led to fears that this could compromise command-and-control processes and plant functioning. On 5 October, President Putin signed a decree to formalise Russian control of the plant. Since then, both sides have accused the other of causing electricity supply disruptions to the reactors. Such interruptions continue.
Role of the IAEA
Physical security of nuclear facilities is a national responsibility. The IAEA has an advisory role in the matter. But, in this conflict, it has had to play a more proactive part as the warring parties have both maintained communication with the global nuclear watchdog to report their sides of the story.
On 29 March, Rafael Grossi made his first visit to Ukraine as director general of the IAEA, to assess the situation and provide necessary assistance to avert any nuclear disaster. A month later, he brought IAEA experts to Ukraine to “conduct nuclear safety, security and radiological assessments, deliver vital equipment and repair the Agency’s remote safeguards monitoring systems” at the Chernobyl site. On 1 September, an IAEA team arrived at Zaporizhzhia to assess physical damage, main and back-up safety and security systems, and working conditions of the control room staff, and to undertake safeguards activities. Grossi said, “the physical integrity of the plant has been violated several times.”
Since 17 January 2023, IAEA teams have been stationed at Ukrainian nuclear plants. At this moment, the situation seems to have settled into an uneasy stability, but the dangers have certainly not receded.
Existing legal protection measures around NPPs
Article 56 of Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions of 1979 provides that “nuclear power plants shall not be made the object of attack, even where these objects are military objectives, if such an attack may cause the release of dangerous forces and consequent severe losses among the civilian population.” By mentioning only NPPs, however, the article leaves out research reactors, nuclear material in transit, enrichment and reprocessing facilities, and spent fuel pools. But, its Paragraph 2 removes protection to nuclear facilities if they are providing electric power in regular, significant, and direct support of military operations.
The IAEA, too, has some General Conference Resolutions, such as GC(XXVII)/RES/407 (1983), GC(XXIX)/RES/444 (1985), GC(XXX3)/RES/475 (1987), GC(XXXIV)/RES/533 (1990), GC(53)/DEC/13 (2009), to govern the security of nuclear facilities. Customary international humanitarian law instructs states to take “particular care” of nuclear electrical generating stations to avoid “release of dangerous forces and consequent severe losses among the civilian population.” It does not outrightly prohibit such attacks. More recently, the IAEA identified Seven Pillars of Nuclear Safety and Security to provide guidance to states to ensure that:
Useful though such guidance is, its implementation amidst a messy war situation cannot be guaranteed. States can only be encouraged to follow codes of responsible conduct to ensure that nuclear facilities are treated with the sensitivity they deserve, since disasters at such sites could be unforgiving. Not only would they have inter-generational environmental and health impacts, they would also adversely impact global nuclear industry. These risks will only grow as the numbers of nuclear reactors increase, with a growing perception of nuclear energy as relevant to addressing climate change concerns. The likelihood of small modular reactor deployment is also on the anvil.
In the face of such developments, it is imperative for the international community to establish and reinforce responsible behaviour around nuclear facilities. Arriving at bilateral or multilateral non-attack agreements could be one solution. Such an agreement currently exists between India and Pakistan—both sides exchange a list of nuclear installations every year with the commitment that these will not attacked. This template can be used by others, too. Alternatively, an international agreement prohibiting armed attacks against nuclear facilities could be concluded. This would build additional normative pressure. Such an agreement could even be supplemented with positive security assurances, suggesting that a violator would be collectively penalised. Averting a disaster at a nuclear facility is thus indeed a shared interest.
*Dr. Manpreet Sethi is Distinguished Fellow with the Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS), New Delhi.