2nd Jun 2023


How scary is threat to Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant?

  • Even if the reactors themselves are well protected against damage, the cooling systems rely on exterior pipeline connections. The backup diesel generators, electrical substations and control rooms, moreover, feature only moderate protection (Photo: Al Jazeera screengrab)
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Russia has launched targeted assaults deploying heavy weaponry against nuclear facilities in Ukraine. The Kremlin's use of nuclear power plants as part of its military tactics abhorrently contradicts international humanitarian law. It is apparent that Russia has employed the facilities as warehouses for its military supplies and as 'safe' corridors for its troops in a callous calculation that the sensitive nature of the sites render them immune from Ukrainian counterattacks.

Moscow's behaviour rather resembles that of a terrorist.

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The recent shelling of Zaporizhizhia nuclear power plant (NPP) was not merely a sporadic attack but rather underscored the direct threat of nuclear reactor destruction. Given absent control of the site and its nuclear fuel assemblies, the possibility is left open for Russia via irregular mercenaries, like the Wagner Group, to use the situation to extort the entire democratic world.

While some experts have played down the risks of a disaster concerning nuclear facilities in Ukraine amid the ongoing conflict, these assessments understate the threat.

Ukrainian and international militaries, nuclear experts and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have not sufficiently factored in the possibility that Russia could wilfully deploy troops in near proximity of the nuclear facilities and/or threaten reactor destruction to blackmail Ukraine and the democratic world like the worst terrorist.

On 3 March 2022, Russian troops repeatedly used heavy weapons (armoured vehicles and tanks) to attack the infrastructure of working reactors, the administrative building and the training centre at the Zaporizhzhia NPP.

The evidence that soon after emerged diverged from early comments by the IAEA that had acknowledged the gravity of the assault but emphasised that the action took place away from the reactors.

Even if the reactors themselves are well protected against damage, the cooling systems rely on exterior pipeline connections. The backup diesel generators, electrical substations and control rooms, moreover, feature only moderate protection.

And the mining of access routes, and the unpredictable behaviour of Russian troops based there, further undermine the ability of officials and experts to react adequately to possible emergencies and accidents at the Zaporizhzhia NPP and organise the evacuation of local inhabitants.

Following its occupation of the site, Russia has indeed deployed mines in the area, stationed numerous troops armed with heavy weapons at the plant and brought a group of Rosatom specialists to the NPP.

The Kremlin claims that the facility belongs to Rosatom and consequently must operate in accordance with Rosatom decrees.

Ukrainian staff remain at the plant and continue to ensure its safe operation, maintenance and monitoring. Ukraine's nuclear power operator has also restored its link to the surveillance systems of the facility and kept producing electricity in the United Energy System of Ukraine.

Five scenarios

It is becoming increasingly apparent, however, that Moscow is seeking to change the operational mode of the NPP and use the situation for other illicit purposes. Possible current or future scenarios include but are not limited to the following:

1. Russia is attempting to disconnect the Zaporizhzhia NPP from the united energy system of Ukraine and redirect at least part of its capacities to supply electricity to occupied Crimea and southeast Ukraine.

2. Russia is using Zaporizhzhia NPP as a military base — the mere existence of the nuclear plant functions like a shield precluding Ukrainian counterattacks and steering Kyiv's allies to limit military support and even urge Ukraine to postpone its offensives. Against the backdrop of Ukraine's recent successes near Kherson, Russia began shelling the facility and the area around it. The damage inflicted includes reportedly a firefighting unit and coolant pumping station, several radiation level control sensors at the dry storage site for spent nuclear fuel and the forced shut-down of one reactor.

3. Zaporizhzhia NPP is a success case for Westinghouse VVER-1000 fuel utilisation in Soviet-era constructed nuclear units. The spent nuclear fuel area contains respective assemblies, which might be taken by Russians and used for extortion purposes or to put forward accusations that Ukraine or Western partners had attempted to create nuclear weapons at the site.

4. The possible appearance of Wagner Group mercenaries at the Zaporizhzhia NPP will enhance the risk of subversion and Russia's subsequent accusation of Ukraine in any tragedy.

5. Zaporizhzhia NPP needs to urgently become a demilitarised area, together with the nearby city of Energodar, under the control of a special United Nations contingent and regular IAEA mission at the site.

The same approach was used by Russia at the Chernobyl NPP exclusion zone on 24 February 2022, through the Belarussian Polesie State Radioecological Reserve — also an area with restricted access.

The Kremlin, notably, employed the Chernobyl exclusion zone as a warehouse for military supplies and a safe haven for regrouping troops during hostilities around Kyiv.

Moscow took these actions as Ukraine refrained from conducting shelling in the direction of the NPP. Russia ultimately retreated from the area at the end of March though not before destroying a modern laboratory focused on the management of radioactive waste at the NPP and reportedly seizing highly-active samples of radionuclides.

It remains unclear whether the laboratory was plundered by regular infantry/irregular Chechen mercenaries or a special Rosatom team.

The International Atomic Energy Agency has remained quite reticent regarding Russian activities around Chernobyl NPP and growing threats of accidents at the site and in the exclusion zone.

The organisation rather has asserted that the risks are limited and manageable.

Yet another assault in the direction of the South Ukraine Nuclear Power Plant, located a few hundred kilometres to the west of Zaporizhzhia NPP, has only been averted owing to the valiant resistance of Ukrainian troops.

It should be clear to everyone that Russia has intentionally deployed heavy weaponry against nuclear facilities and used the sites to provide cover to its own troops and blackmail counterparts through methods similarly employed by the worst terrorists in the world.

The democratic world must now robustly respond to these actions through additional joint support to Ukraine's reoccupation operations and Russia's military defeat.

Author bio

Andrii Chubyk is senior fellow on energy, Ukraine and Eastern Europe programme at the Globsec think tank in Bratislava, and worked in 2018-2021 for Ukrainian state-owned energy companies on projects related to electricity and gas sector integration into European energy market.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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