Nuclear energy: caught in the crossfire

9 March 2022

File photo of Zaporizhzhya nuclear plant (Photo: Energoatom)The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has taken the nuclear industry into uncharted territory. It is the first time a country with nuclear power plants has been invaded. It is the first time a nuclear power plant has been attacked. And it is the first time public fear of nuclear has been used by both sides to rally support. For different reasons, both Ukraine and Russia have consciously chosen to make nuclear energy itself a battlefield, says Jeremy Gordon.

The precedent was set on the first day of the conflict when Russian troops arrived at the Chernobyl site. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was quick to tweet about it: “Russian occupation forces are trying to seize Chernobyl. Our defenders are giving their lives so that the tragedy of 1986 will not be repeated. This is a declaration of war against the whole of Europe.”

Eight days later, as Russian troops approached Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Ukraine’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba tweeted: “Russian army is firing from all sides upon Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe. Fire has already broken out. If it blows up, it will be 10 times larger than Chernobyl!”

With those words echoing through the media, an unbelievable scene unfolded where a Russian armoured column approached Zaporizhzhia, meeting deadly defensive force from a Ukrainian military unit and the plant’s guards, three of whom sacrificed their lives while two were seriously wounded. Energoatom got through this extraordinary challenge without any reduction in nuclear safety, but control of the plant was taken by Russian forces, which surrounded it to command the entrance and the administration building.

Shortly after the battle, the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine (SNRIU) stretched its credibility to state the maximum risks that it possibly could. After reporting that the plant was safe with all cooling requirements met, it then added, “The loss of the possibility to cool down nuclear fuel will lead to significant radioactive releases into the environment. As a result, such an event may exceed all previous accidents at nuclear power plants, including the Chernobyl accident and the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.”

Despite everything that happened, safety was never significantly degraded at Chernobyl or at Zaporizizhia, which continues power generation in uneasy and unsatisfactory mode of compromise between Energoatom staff and Russian forces. However, there remains a perception that the plant was on the edge of catastrophe and could be again. Ukraine’s exaggerations encouraging this have been made for entirely understandable reasons. Zelenskyy wants the world’s outrage – and its fear of radiation – to boost support for a proposed No-Fly Zone over the country as well as 30 kilometer perimeters around nuclear power plants. Ukraine is not going to stop wanting those things as this conflict continues and other nuclear sites are drawn into it.

Impacts and response in Europe

Nuclear was an undercurrent well before the conflict. Russian President Vladimir Putin uses exports of oil and gas to fund his country and its military, and for a decade he has been building nuclear at home so that he can export more gas to Europe. It was surely a part of Putin’s calculation that Europe would not be able to live without his gas, and that he could threaten to cut supply if he needed to.

All this has been obvious for a long time, but finally Europe (and Germany in particular) is having to examine its options to get off Russian energy exports. First oil and gas, then coal and then potentially Russian uranium, conversion, enrichment, and even planned nuclear power plants.

On the day the conflict started, Swedish utility Vattenfall announced that no deliveries of Russian uranium would be made to its power plants until further notice and nor would it place any new orders. The next day, Finland’s Minister for Economic Affairs, Mika Lintila, said Hanhikivi “will at least be significantly delayed”. These will not be the only impacts on Rosatom, which had been the nuclear industry’s most successful exporter.

How has the nuclear industry responded to the war in Ukraine?

Apart from the above, and of course Energoatom, the nuclear industry has been like a rabbit in the headlights. As this huge crisis slowly unfolded industry left an information vacuum to be filled by wild speculation and anti-nuclear organisations. The owners of nuclear power plants worldwide showed zero public solidarity with Energoatom, even while it was literally under military attack. Only a diverse group of independent advocates organised themselves to provide some informed commentary as a response.

To look at the homepage and social media of the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO), the organisation exclusively focused on operational nuclear safety, you wouldn’t think a battle had taken place in the car park of Europe’s biggest nuclear power plant, nor that the scene may stand to be repeated at other nuclear power plants in weeks to come.

No wonder that a Ukrainian advisor at WANO’s Moscow Centre sent an explosive resignation email. As forces gathered to seize Zaporizhzhia, he wrote: “Why are you silent when there is a real threat to the safety of Ukraine's nuclear power plants, when Russian troops are bombing and firing missiles at Ukrainian cities? Where are your protests?”

WANO had been sharing confirmed information between its members and started sharing factual updates publicly the day after Zaporizhzhia was attacked. On 7 March it said it had activated its Crisis Information Centre.

The extensive activities of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) provide no get-out for industry. The agency’s role is to represent the collective interests of all its member states, particularly in terms of safety. While it is doing extremely important work to support SNRIU and to negotiate a stable operating solution for Ukrainian nuclear power plants, it must at the same time be under pressure to repeat potentially exaggerated Ukrainian narratives.

Now that Zaporizhzhia is in the hands of Russia’s military, new possibilities arise. Energoatom has already warned that it expects Russian forces to bring fake journalists to falsely report that plans for a nuclear weapon or a dirty bomb were found at the power plant.

Preventing the spread of nuclear weapons is an area where IAEA speaks with authority and clarity, and it already has. Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi told a press conference: “This issue for us is very clear. We do not have any information that would question the non-proliferation credentials of Ukraine. We continue our safeguards operation and we do not have any information that there is any deviation of material, any undeclared material or any activities leading to the development of nuclear weapons.” 

Reputational damage to nuclear 

There has so far been no significant damage to nuclear plants in Ukraine and only marginal reductions to nuclear safety. But the first two weeks of fighting have already made clear that Russia ignores the rules of war and that both countries’ governments are prepared to spread disinformation about nuclear when they think they will get an advantage. Nuclear power is taking considerable reputational damage while the terms of the future energy debate shift around it. 

The nuclear industry must stop hiding and field a serious, unified response to the nuclear safety risks in Ukraine and the purposeful stoking of public fear. It must demand with one voice that there be no more fighting at nuclear power plants, that the principles of nuclear safety be fully respected, and that if sites change hands it happens according to a protocol that ensures ongoing operational safety.

Industry should stick up for Ukrainian nuclear workers facing appalling conditions and the threat of attack at their workplace. It must publicly put its full support behind Grossi and the IAEA on questions of non-proliferation. It must contribute its knowledge and experience to the public conversation about nuclear safety risks from the war in Ukraine.

Like it or not, the peaceful nuclear power industry is a battlefield in this war and there is no way its leaders can pretend otherwise or opt out.

About the author

Jeremy Gordon is an independent communication consultant with 18 years of experience in the international energy industry. His company Fluent in Energy supports partners of all kinds to communicate matters of clean energy and sustainable development.


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