The Harvard historian says governments should agree to protect them in war

The Economist

Aug 21, 2022

Serhii Plokhy

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine came as a shock and reminded the world of the worst moments in its history. Not since the end of the second world war has Europe seen a conflict of such proportions, destruction and human suffering.

The war has also brought back fears of nuclear destruction. Vladimir Putin’s decision to increase the readiness of Russian nuclear forces in its first days, and veiled nuclear threats from Russian officials, provoked a direct response from Joe Biden. Last month he promised “severe consequences” for “any use of nuclear weapons in this conflict on any scale”.

But the war has already brought a different kind of nuclear danger. It happened when Russia’s forces took over the site of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on the first day of the war and shelled and captured Zaporizhzhia, the largest nuclear power station in Europe with its six reactors, in early March.

Muted responses, including from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has responsibility for the security of the world’s approximately 440 nuclear reactors (of which 15 are located in Ukraine), point to an inability to deal with the dangers posed by conventional warfare at nuclear sites. The IAEA’s early statements failed even to call Russia the aggressor or condemn its actions.

The problem goes beyond one agency, however. No commercial nuclear reactors, as opposed to those which produce plutonium, have been built to withstand military attack. No protocols or regulations have ever been created to deal with the possibility of warfare at a nuclear power plant, and no body of international law, including conventions and agreements relating to conduct in war, adequately deal with the possibility.

The first additional protocol of the Geneva Conventions on conduct in war comes from 1977. It treats nuclear power plants on a par with dams and dykes, and withholds protection from them if a plant “provides electric power in regular, significant and direct support of military operations and if such attack is the only feasible way to terminate such support”. It is too easy today to make a credible case for the legality of any attack on a nuclear reactor. This is a dangerous situation.

Today nine countries possess nuclear weapons; 33 countries use nuclear reactors to produce electrical energy. Nuclear energy accounts for the production of 10% of global electricity. There are growing hopes that a new generation of reactors will help to curb the use of fossil fuels and so tackle climate change.

Yet the war in Ukraine has raised new questions about the future of nuclear energy. To the dangers of nuclear accidents and unresolved issues over spent nuclear fuel, add one more problem: the possibility that nuclear reactors operating today could become dirty bombs in a war. Ukraine demonstrates how such a scenario could come to pass. For the first time, operational civilian plants were attacked by ground forces. (In the past only plants under construction and those producing plutonium have been targeted.)

It was pure luck that the shells fired by the Russian National Guard, who have little or no combat experience, did not hit any of the reactors at the Zaporizhia station. Thankfully they set alight a training centre instead. Operating the reactor under normal circumstances is a difficult task; operating it amid fighting on the station’s site could have been a disaster. The professionalism of the reactor’s operators deserves praise.

At Chernobyl the question of how nuclear waste should be dealt with emerged in frightening circumstances. The most dangerous moment of Russia’s five-week period of control came with a power outage as a result of shelling. Electricity is needed for the control systems of the shelter which encases the station’s damaged fourth reactor. It also powers the pumps that bring water to the cooling pond containing spent fuel assemblies from Chernobyl’s last reactor (it was shut down in December 2000). More than two decades on, the assemblies are still too hot to be left without coolant—they can rupture and release radioactive material. (Spent-fuel storage also poses a challenge at nuclear plants around the world.) Only the use of the emergency generators, and the fact that there was enough diesel to power them, saved Chernobyl from a new nuclear accident.

The war is ongoing, and Russian cruise missiles continue to fly over Ukraine’s remaining three nuclear power stations. A glitch in a targeting system or a hit by Ukrainian anti-aircraft defences could lead to damage. No one knows how to deal with such a scenario, and few are considering it.

The threat posed to nuclear plants in Ukraine raises uncomfortable questions about whether we should continue building them in the future, and the degree to which we can turn to nuclear energy as a means of mitigating climate change. These questions deserve serious consideration. But one answer seems to be obvious even now: we should not build new nuclear plants unless we can find a way to protect existing ones in war.

It is time for governments to wake up to the new kind of nuclear threat. Mr Biden should warn Russia about the consequences of damaging nuclear sites as starkly as he has done over the use of nuclear weapons. We should ban fighting on and around the nuclear sites as soon as possible and protect the hundreds of nuclear reactors in existence—and the dozens under construction—from the effects of war. The IAEA should lead the way and host a conference to discuss related legal and institutional questions. The need is urgent. Exposure to radiation in Ukraine or elsewhere will harm attackers, defenders and civilians in equal measure.

Serhii Plokhy is the Mykhailo S. Hrushevs’kyi Professor of Ukrainian History and the director of the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of “Atoms and Ashes: From Bikini Atoll to Fukushima” (Penguin, 2022).