Should the war in Ukraine spur a nuclear security rethink?
Ukrainian soldiers in Chernobyl pose in front of the "sarcophagus" concealing the nuclear reactor that melted down in 1986, provoking the world's worst ever nuclear disaster, on May 24, 2022. © David Gormezano, France 24

With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, nuclear facilities have been caught up in the midst of conventional warfare for the first time in history. That nightmare scenario is one that few of the industry’s players had anticipated. In Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia, Russian forces represent a lingering threat to the most basic rules of nuclear security.

On the way to Chernobyl along the Dnipro River, a two-hour drive from Kyiv, the imprint left by Russia’s occupation remains, two months after an ordeal that lasted from the February 24 invasion until March 31. Most bridges have been destroyed and our driver warns us to stay on the pavement as landmines lurk beyond.

After the invasion, the exclusion zone around Chernobyl – a 30-kilometer radius around the notorious nuclear plant near Ukraine’s border with Belarus – made global headlines once again. For some 35 days, Chernobyl personnel had to abide the Russian soldiers who seemed oblivious to the dangers inherent in a nuclear site.

“They had a very low level of knowledge. They didn’t understand that the soil here is contaminated, that one mustn’t touch it, and certainly not dig trenches in it,” recounted Ruslan, a technician at the plant, waiting for his bus into work. “And yet that’s what they did and it spurred an increased level of radioactivity at the site. Happily, management handled the situation well.”

Chernobyl shift chief Valentin Geïko became a national hero after he was able to tell various media how he resisted the orders of Russian officers with no scientific knowledge and with ambiguous intentions. Geïko’s sense of humor and his determination helped the plant’s personnel cope while they were held hostage for 20 days, until Russian soldiers finally allowed their colleagues in to relieve them of their duties.

With Russia’s invasion, Chernobyl had the world’s nuclear experts in a cold sweat all over again. Deactivated sensors, troop movements on contaminated soil, and a plant disconnected from the electrical network from March 9 to 14 had specialists fearing the worst.

Sergei, another plant employee, can still hardly believe it, after seeing “the barbarians” turn up inside the exclusion zone that has been insulating the damaged reactor since 1986. “They pillaged everything, broke technical material, equipment. But happily, they didn’t damage the cooling system, which could have provoked a catastrophe.”

Indeed, the Chernobyl nuclear site remains active 36 years after the worst nuclear accident in history. The dismantling of the site’s four reactors is still in progress and, most importantly, some 22,000 highly radioactive spent fuel assemblies are being kept in storage pools that require constant cooling. Another major activity at the site is the surveillance of the 100-plus meter sarcophagus completed in 2019, which isolates the reactor that “melted” during the 1986 disaster.

In Zaporizhzhia, a menacing and disconcerting occupation

While Russian soldiers have now left the Chernobyl site, allowing the plant to return to a level of risk deemed acceptable by international standards, the Zaporizhzhia plant’s occupation, ongoing since March 4, has made for some surreal and worrisome scenes on the other side of the country. The images of artillery fire targeting buildings inside the plant’s enclosure spurred major concern, although no nuclear incident came of it.

Ukrainian authorities said 500 soldiers settled in at the site, with 50-odd military vehicles, including tanks, weapons and explosives of all sorts; an arsenal entirely incompatible with the most basic security rules inside the walls of a nuclear facility.

“Nobody had ever imagined that one could open fire on a nuclear power plant, the way the Russians did in Zaporizhzhia,” said Petro Kotin, president of Energoatom, the public company in charge of nuclear energy in Ukraine. “Today, they are using it as a military base because the perimeter is well protected by walls and video surveillance. They also use the cafeteria and the canteen to better the daily life of their soldiers,” he said thoughtfully. “We have the impression that they themselves don’t understand the objective of occupying the plant. They came, they occupied and they didn’t really know what to do with it.”

Indeed, neither the Russian soldiers nor the 10 to 15 technicians from Rosatom, the powerful Russian civil nuclear energy firm, on site at Zaporizhzhia tried to get their hands on nuclear fuel. Moreover, the plant’s two functioning reactors (out of six in total) are still supplying electricity to the Ukrainian network and powering the cooling systems of the largest nuclear plant in Europe.

Could Russia’s objective be to use the site as a spoil of war to supply electricity to Crimea or other territories? Russia’s deputy prime minister appeared to indicate as much during a visit to Zaporizhzhia last week. “If Ukraine is ready to pay, then (the plant) can operate for Ukraine. If not, then it will operate for Russia,” said Marat Khusnullin, as cited by Russian press agencies.

“For the moment, it is impossible to connect Zaporizhzhia to the Russian electrical network,” Kotin retorted. “For that, one would need to build 200 to 400 kilometers of lines, which would cost more than €500 million and could take two years. But with time and money, the Russians can do it, of course. Look at the means they deployed to build a bridge between Crimea and the Russian Federation” between 2014 and 2018, he added.

The challenge of nuclear security in wartime

Those in the civil nuclear industry believe it is vital to deliberate on the issue of nuclear security in wartime. Terrorist attack scenarios had been considered in the past. But in light of the Russian invasion, the matter of adopting international rules is now on the table.

Over the past three months, Ukrainian authorities have been calling – so far without success – for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to commit its members to respecting a five-kilometer perimeter around nuclear facilities inside of which no military forces can be permitted to penetrate.

For now, the Ukrainian government has reinforced the defense of its nuclear sites. “We now have soldiers equipped with Javelin and NLAW anti-tank missiles to protect the nuclear plants. In Zaporizhzhia, we were taken by surprise; there was not yet a single weapon on site. I don’t know specifically what military means were deployed. That is confidential information that I don’t have access to,” said Kotin.

The head of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants has meanwhile forbidden the transport of nuclear material anywhere on Ukrainian territory for security reason. Moving the fuel needed for the reactors to operate will just have to wait until the end of the war. The measure shouldn’t hamper the functioning of Ukraine’s nuclear infrastructure because the country’s authorities followed the advice of American experts dispatched after war began in the Donbas in 2014.

“We followed their recommendation to build new nuclear fuel storage units on Ukrainian soil that would allow our plants to operate for two years. If ever the war were to last more than two years, we’ll see what we have to do then,” Kotin explained.

In Ukraine, the prospect of peace seems a distant one. But the long run is just the sort of timeline that the civil nuclear industry needs to guarantee optimal nuclear security. In the short term, the threat of a battle between Ukrainian and Russian forces for control of the Zaporizhzhia plant cannot be dismissed, with Ukraine displaying its willingness to reclaim all of its occupied territory in the months to come. The prospect of high-intensity combat for control of a nuclear facility? A nightmare, for Europe as a whole.

This article has been translated from the original in French.