In 1985, at the height of the Cold War, foreign policy and nuclear expert Bennett Ramberg published a paperback titled Nuclear Power Plants: An Unrecognised Military Peril, whose subject – the targeting of nuclear installations by a protagonist to secure a tactical or strategic advantage – the Russia-Ukraine War has made relevant.

Ramberg made several observations about nuclear power plants (NPPs) in time of war, including that:

  • The targeting of NPPs in time of war has the potential to influence an opponent’s behaviour, providing, of course, the opponent values the lives of its soldiers and citizens and productivity of its farmland. When interstate relations sour, NPPs invite coercive engagement.
  • By bombing NPPs, an aggressor could render uninhabitable vast tracts of land. Targeting a reactor containment with, for example, ballistic or cruise missiles would, if the containment was breached, create a radiological weapon or dirty bomb. Ramberg noted a steady improvement in the accuracy of munitions.
  • Bombing NPPs could see significant numbers of soldiers and civilians killed or immobilised. Observed Ramberg: “Major reactor accident consequences models suggest that contamination resulting in deaths within sixty days could extend forty miles downwind in very stable weather”.
  • By bombing the NPPs of a neighbouring state, the aggressor nation would risk poisoning its own soldiers, civilians and land. Radionuclides released during the 1986 Chornobyl fire contaminated farmland across Europe. Professor Ulrich Beck, in his celebrated book Risk Society, framed radionuclide contamination as an inter- generational, transnational hazard.
  • By bombing nuclear facilities, a state with a small nuclear arsenal (Ramberg mentions Britain and France) could amplify or leverage its nuclear arsenal’s destructive power.
  • In an age of relatively cheap precision munitions, powerful states’ ambitious nuclear power programmes gift leverage to weak states with modern weapons. Observed Ramberg: “Facility vulnerability is likely to increase… as nations acquire more lethal weapons, assuming that plants are not better protected”.
  • A state, mindful of the vulnerability of its NPPs, might behave differently towards its neighbours. Observed Ramberg: “[NPPs] could have the positive effect of constraining… governments’… bellicose behaviour and serve as levellers of military power between weak and strong neighbours”.
  • NPPs are vulnerable to saboteurs.
  • An enemy whose munitions lack the precision to hit a reactor containment, could target facilities with a larger footprint, such as waste storage ponds or fuel reprocessing plants.
  • A state fearful of invasion could, by siting NPPs close to its borders, create a line of radiological mines or dirty bombs (the deterrent value of which would, of course, depend on the defending state’s willingness to sacrifice in its defence expensive infrastructure, and on the prevailing wind blowing in the direction of the aggressor state).
  • Whatever the attractions of bombing an enemy’s NPPs, it is likely a breached containment or destroyed storage pond or reprocessing facility would cause less death, injury, trauma, destruction and disruption than a fusion weapon (Hydrogen bomb) dropped on an enemy formation, industrial complex, town or city. The NPP radiological or dirty bomb is the poor man’s nuclear weapon.

The Russia-Ukraine War through Ramberg’s optic

In light of Ramberg’s discourse, a major war in a continent peppered with nuclear power plants is certainly concerning. Viewing the Russia-Ukraine war through the optic of Ramberg’s discourse yields the following ideas, insights and conclusions:

There has been no deliberate targeting of nuclear power plant reactor containments. The data suggests that, to date, reactor containments have not been deliberately targeted. Both Russia and Ukraine have the capacity to deliver conventional munitions with a high degree of accuracy. Russia can do this using ballistic and cruise missiles. Ukraine can do this using both indigenous munitions such as the Neptune anti-ship missile (that was reportedly used to sink the missile cruiser Moskva, flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet) and western-supplied munitions such as Britain’s Storm Shadow air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) and France’s version of Storm Shadow, the Système de Croisière Autonome à Longue Portée – Emploi Général missile, or SCALP-EG for short. On 13 September, 2023, Ukraine used British-supplied Storm Shadow cruise missiles to severely damage two Russian naval vessels, a submarine and a logistics ship, in the Black Sea port of Sevastopol in Russia- occupied Crimea. Despite these capabilities, to date, Russia has refrained from deliberately targeting Ukrainian NPP reactor containments and Ukraine, despite launching small- scale attacks against prestige targets inside Russia, such as airbases and Moscow’s financial district, has refrained from targeting any Russian nuclear power plant reactor containments.

NPP auxiliary buildings and NPP occupying forces have been targeted. Both Russia and Ukraine have fired conventional munitions into NPP sites, albeit with a view to destroying auxiliary equipment and intimidating or neutralising occupying forces. During the early stages of the war, the Russians fired conventional munitions into the decommissioning Chornobyl NPP complex. Later in the conflict, Defence Intelligence of Ukraine claimed Kyiv had mounted a drone strike on Russian soldiers billeted at the Zaporizhzhia NPP. It is axiomatic that munitions – even GPS-guided munitions – are not 100% reliable. Power units (combustion, jet or rocket engines) can malfunction. They can run out of fuel. Guidance systems can malfunction or be jammed. Guidance systems can be mis-programmed by exhausted and stressed troops. Munitions can be intercepted, generating shrapnel with high kinetic energy. Using munitions in proximity to NPP reactor containments is always risky.

External power supplies have been targeted. Nuclear power plants draw electrical power from the high-voltage grid for reactor cooling. When this supply fails, the NPP must use its back-up diesel generators – a last line of defence. Ukraine’s NPPs have had their external electricity supply interrupted multiple times. Interruptions spark furious exchanges, with Ukraine accusing Russia of targeting infrastructure critical to the safe operation of its NPPs and Russia accusing Ukraine of destroying pylons and sub- stations to cast Russia in a bad light.

There have been near-misses. Munitions have detonated close to NPP reactor containments. Plants have been overflown by Russian cruise and ballistic missiles.

Nuclear propaganda has thickened the fog of war. Wars are fought in two domains. First, in the physical domain of armed combat. Secondly, in the ideological- doctrinal domain of propaganda and messaging. The propaganda potential of Ukraine’s NPPs has been exploited by both sides, with each accusing the other of behaving irresponsibly in the vicinity of NPPs. The resulting war of words has rendered the fog of war more impenetrable.

Non-nuclear (thermal) power plants have been targeted. For example, on 13 June, 2023, the Ukrainians claimed the Russians had attacked the thermal powerplant at Kryvyi Rih. Ukrainska Pravda reported: “As a result of a Russian attack on the night of 13 June, a building of a thermal power plant was damaged in Kryvyi Rih. Due to shelling, thousands of consumers in the front-line areas remain without electricity”. On 4 September, 2023, the Russians claimed that one of its thermal powerplants, located in the Bryansk region of Russia, had been subject to a Ukrainian drone attack. Britain’s Sky News reported: “Local governor Alexander Bogomaz… said there were no casualties, and the plant’s infrastructure remained unscathed”.

Nuclear safety in time of crisis or war

While Bennett Ramberg’s vision of a land made sterile and uninhabitable by radionuclide contamination has not yet been realised in Ukraine, the longer hostilities last, the more opportunity there will be for mishap or, indeed, the intentional destruction of one or more of Ukraine’s fifteen nuclear reactors. The worse Russia’s prospects on the battlefield – and, by any measure, Russia’s campaign to subjugate Ukraine has failed – the greater the incentive for Russia to exploit the blackmail potential of Ukraine’s NPPs.

The purpose of a nuclear power plant building programme is to deliver security. The phenomenon of atomic blackmail, described so eloquently by Bennett Ramberg all those years ago, means that, in times of increased tension or actual war, NPP building programmes, by creating more targets, may deliver less security. This more-means-less paradox invites analysis.

Any country minded to develop or grow a nuclear power programme should, as a minimum, secure its nuclear sites against foreseeable threats. Such threats include:

  • Sabotage by disaffected employees
  • Terrorist attacks
  • In time of crisis or war, attacks mounted by insurgents or commandos
  • Shellfire, drone strikes, cruise, hypersonic or ballistic missile strikes and airstrikes.

It is important to note that even if such threats do not, in fact, translate into offensive actions – a commando raid, for example – the very possibility of their realisation may provide adversaries leverage or traction over the policies and actions of countries with NPPs. Threat influences thinking.

One of the axioms of risk management is that active learning – the improvement of technologies and procedures based on objective analyses of past failures and successes – builds resilience and grows safety margins. It is important that current and aspirant NPP-operating countries recognise the fact that, in time of crisis or war, NPPs present adversaries with tempting targets. As the saying goes, those who fail to learn from the past risk having it repeat. As indicated by the attacks described below (Table 1), the risk is real.

According to some, the past is an unreliable guide to the future. That may be the case. However, given what is at stake, countries intent on initiating or growing a nuclear power programme would be wise to study Table 1, reflect on the course of the Russia-Ukraine War and, with reference to Bennett Ramberg’s visionary discourse, hypothesise.

Author: Dr SA Bennett, Lecturer in Risk Management at the University of Leicester, United Kingdom

The article draws on research done for the 2023 book Atomic Blackmail? The weaponisation of nuclear facilities during the Russia-Ukraine War (Dr SA Bennett, Libri Publishing Ltd.)