Four unanswered questions about the intersection of war and nuclear power

Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine. The two tall smokestacks are at a coal-fired generating station about 3km beyond the nuclear plant. Photo credit: Ralf1969 via Wikimedia Commons.

For a night on March 3, Russian military forces seized the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine, damaged its infrastructure, and spread fear of a nuclear catastrophe. Fortunately, the attack did not threaten sensitive areas of the nuclear power plant, and radiation levels around the plant did not raise concern. Still, the crisis underscored the danger posed by a war that crosses paths with a nuclear power plant. Since this may be a case of when, not if, the next wartime attack on a nuclear power plant happens, scholars and policymakers would be wise to revisit concepts for assessing and protocols for responding to nuclear power plant crises in war zones. Here are some unanswered questions that warrant immediate consideration:

How should experts redefine the boundaries between nuclear security and nuclear safety? Nuclear safety professionals seek to understand and manage nuclear-power-plant risks produced by man-made errors (e.g., Chernobyl), system failures (e.g., Three Mile Island), or natural events (e.g., Fukushima). Nuclear security professionals, on the other hand, are concerned with preventing states from engaging in nuclear-armed conflicts and terrorists from hijacking nuclear power plants or nuclear materials. However, when war intersects with a nuclear power plant as it did in Zaporizhzhia, the distinction between nuclear safety and nuclear security crumbles.

Any form of military damages on infrastructures critical for the safe operation of a nuclear power plant has the potential to blur the line between nuclear safety and nuclear security. Even if the belligerent provoking these damages is clearly identified, it can remain difficult to ascertain whether such actions were intentional or accidental. For instance, armed forces might endanger the safety of a nuclear power plant by disrupting electricity supply in the pursuit of other objectives.

The lines between nuclear safety and nuclear security also fade away when military personnel occupy a nuclear power plant and interfere with its safe operation. If an accident occurs while military personnel occupy a nuclear power plant, doubts around the responsibilities or intentions of military occupants will not be resolved. For example, ill-advised directives from military occupants to plant operators could lead to mismanaging a nuclear accident, which could endanger operators and local populations.

How can experts better understand and assess the dangers of wartime attacks on nuclear power plants? Nuclear power plants are designed to withstand hazards that originate from operator errors, system failures, or natural disruptions. They are also managed to thwart terrorists’ intent on provoking nuclear accidents or diverting nuclear materials. Nuclear experts understand these risks and have established protocols for these dangers.

Virtual Program: The war in Ukraine and its implications for our nuclear future

Like a natural disaster, a warzone attack may come from the outside. However, the similarities stop there. Nuclear power plants are not designed to withstand military projectiles, and nuclear safety analysts have no experience incorporating the uncertainties that characterize military conflicts. The truth is that nuclear experts have little knowledge on how protective structures such as the containment building or the reactor vessel can withstand the destructive forces of a fired projectile. This is especially true for military projectiles as typically very little information around their penetrative and destructive power is available.

How does war impact nuclear safety management? Plant operators are trained to ensure plant safety not only during normal operation but during power outages, natural disasters, and accidents. They are not trained, however, in fulfilling their duties against the backdrop of a war that threatens both the facility and their lives.

During Russia’s takeover of the Zaporizhzhia power plant, for example, staff were forced to fulfill their duties at gunpoint. Such a scenario leaves operators susceptible to making errors. If military occupying forces lack knowledge of nuclear safety, they might impede the operators in their necessary tasks to safely operate the reactor. Moreover, soldiers on site might not even prioritize the safe operation of the plant at all if other military objectives prevail.

Last but not least, police forces, fire fighters, hospitals, public transportation, and communication networks that typically play a role in responding to nuclear accidents may also be unavailable during an armed conflict.

How can a wartime nuclear accident lower the nuclear threshold? When an armed conflict involves countries with nuclear weapons, a conventional conflict could escalate to a nuclear conflict. Countries develop nuclear doctrines that make clear the conditions under which they would use nuclear weapons. This affords a level of control over possible nuclear escalations. The nuclear taboo—the idea that using nuclear weapons is immoral—also restrains nuclear weapon use. However, no one knows how a wartime attack on a nuclear power plant may affect perceptions of nuclear escalation or the nuclear taboo.

War has been an environmental disaster for Ukraine

In the recent crisis, the Ukrainian government blamed Russia for shelling the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant while the Russian state media accused Ukrainian armed forces of sabotaging their own nuclear infrastructure. If the cause of the accident is unclear, opposing sides are likely to blame each other, which will contribute to escalating political tensions between adversaries.

When a nuclear power plant is caught in a war’s crossfire, one side may assume that the other wants to turn a conventional conflict into a nuclear one. A country’s reaction to such an attack further depends on its nuclear doctrine. For example, some experts believe that China would consider retaliating with nuclear weapons if its civilian nuclear facilities were attacked with conventional strikes—regardless of whether the attack was intentional or accidental.

Finally, should a nuclear accident occur during a war, the pervasiveness and invisibility of radioactive dangers will lead to confusion and suspicions among military actors. Opponents might accuse each other of using radioactive substances for military purposes, such as dirty bombs. Moreover, radiation might cross borders and affect countries initially not involved in the conflict. If these countries happen to possess nuclear capabilities, the likelihood of nuclear escalation may increase. For instance, if Poland—a NATO member—were impacted by a nuclear accident in Ukraine caused by Russian airstrikes, would NATO join the war?

A previously hypothetical scenario—an armed conflict that endangers the safety of a nuclear power plant—has now materialized. Policymakers and scholars can no longer remain naïve. Military conflicts threaten the safety of nuclear power plants in ways that are not well understood, and a nuclear accident in a warzone blurs the line between a conventional and nuclear war. As many countries around the world might adopt nuclear power, as nuclear power plants remain active for decades, and as global peace does not reign, the crisis at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia’s facility sounds an urgent alarm for nuclear experts and policymakers to revisit their understanding of nuclear dangers.

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine shows, nuclear threats are real, present, and dangerous

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