The capture of both the iconic Chernobyl nuclear power plant and the operational Zaporizhzhia plant serves a dual purpose for Russia: as strategic military bases and as tools in an information campaign exploiting the fear of nuclear catastrophe, Joanna Przybylak wrote in her recent research paper.
In June 2023, Volodymyr Zelensky, the President of Ukraine, claimed that Russian forces were considering blowing up the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant (NPP) to induce a radiation leak. Already in the early 2022, Russia had occupied Chernobyl for five weeks, before withdrawing on 31 March 2022, along with the broader pullback of troops from the area north of Kyiv.
But despite Russia deliberately keeping the threat of man-made disaster alive, no serious nuclear accident occurred throughout the entire occupation of the plant, Joanna Przybylak reminded in her research paper “Nuclear power plants in war zones: Lessons learned from the war in Ukraine”, published by the Security & Defence Quarterly.
The consequences of the capture of Zaporizhzhia, the second NPP in south-eastern Ukraine have been more severe. On 4 March 2022, Russian troops seized Zaporizhzhia —the largest NPP in Europe, which provided approximately 43 percent of all nuclear power and 20 percent of the total electricity used in Ukraine prior to the war.
On Target Since 1980’s
The research interest on the vulnerability of nuclear reactors as potential targets of military assault goes back to the 1980s, Joanna Przybylak wrote. Then, a successful Israeli attack on the non-operational reactor at Osirak research facility in Iraq captured the attention of scholars.
Przybylak’s new research reflects on the ongoing war in Ukraine, offers invaluable insights into the potential risks and strategies associated with the deployment and targeting of nuclear power plants in war zones. Her paper weights, what are the major threats to the NPPs in Ukraine as a result of Russian military aggression. It considers, how should the legitimacy of Russian attacks on NPPs in Ukraine be assessed in the light of international humanitarian law. Why did the seizure of the Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia NPPs matter for Russia? What is the role of the occupied NPPs in the Russian-Ukrainian information war?
What’s In It For Russia?
The seizure of Zaporizhzhia NPP has disrupted electricity supplies for Ukraine’s civilian population in a considerable way. Assuming operation of the plant instead of shutting it down in the first months of the war allowed Russia to manipulate how much energy a millions of civilians in Ukraine might receive, which resulted in repetitive blackouts, lasting from a few hours to several days, Przybylak reminded.
The site of Zaporizhzhia NPP has also become a convenient base for storing Russian military equipment and supplies due to its strategic location on the southern bank of the Dnipro River and close to front lines. Special protection granted to NPPs under international law has not only been violated by the Russian forces but also deliberately used as a shield for weapons, vehicles, and troops.
When it comes to Chernobyl NPP, the reasons behind its seizure during the first day of the war are not clear-cut, Przybylak pondered. Why would anyone prioritise capturing a defunct power plant over other objects of critical infrastructure, especially at the beginning of the operation, she asked. Taking over Chernobyl NPP definitely did not affect the Ukrainian energy sector, but it also did not present any practical value for the electricity needs of the invading Russian forces. The military significance of Chernobyl is also very questionable. One explanation could be the location of the plant on a direct route from Belarus to Kyiv. As Russian troops invaded Ukraine from the north, they used the fastest route, and securing the Chernobyl zone was simply another step in capturing the territories on the way to the Ukrainian capital.
According to Przybylak, this explanation seems logical, but yet there could be additional motivations behind the seizure of the decommissioned plant. As in the case of Zaporizhzhia NPP, the Russians established a supply base and a command post close to Chernobyl NPP and afterwards dug trenches in the exclusion zone. Given the planned and deliberate nature of these actions, it is likely that the plant served a similar purpose to Zaporizhzhia NPP: it was supposed to become a shield for the Russian troops and equipment deployed nearby. Especially when the symbolic, and often exaggerated, character of the Chernobyl disaster site is considered, it could have been anticipated that the Ukrainians might avoid heavy fighting, not to mention lack of international support for overly risky military activities in this area. It appears very plausible that Chernobyl was indeed intended to become a safe haven for the Russian forces securing the route from the Belarussian border to Kyiv.
But above all, Przybylak concluded, the capture of the iconic remains of Chernobyl NPP with its exclusion zone, as well as the largest operational NPP in Europe, allowed Russia to wage an information campaign, based on deep-rooted fear of nuclear catastrophe.
Toxic Psychological Warfare
The ongoing conflict in Ukraine has brought a unique and alarming dimension to the use of nuclear facilities in wartime. Unlike previous instances in history, the Ukrainian crisis involves the occupation and operational control of fully functional nuclear power plants by enemy forces.
Historically, armed assaults on nuclear sites, predominantly in the Middle East, targeted research centers or non-operational facilities with ambiguous purposes. These attacks, seen in Iraq, Iran, and Syria, aimed to cease operations or destroy the facilities without risking significant radioactive material release. However, the current situation in Ukraine with the Zaporizhzhia and Chernobyl NPPs marks a disturbing first. These facilities are not just targeted; they are occupied and, in the case of Zaporizhzhia, operated under the control of the invading Russian forces. This scenario is unprecedented, Przybylak noted, with no prior record of military assaults on decommissioned NPPs or structures holding spent radioactive fuel.
The closest historical parallel might be the situation of the Krško NPP in Slovenia during the 1991 independence conflict from Yugoslavia. Like Zaporizhzhia, Krško was near a conflict zone and underwent a cold shutdown due to fears of an airstrike or loss of external power.
Amidst this scenario, Russian propaganda has actively exploited nuclear anxiety. Four major narratives have emerged:
- Allegations of Nuclear Weapon Development: Initially, Russia claimed Ukraine was developing nuclear weapons or “dirty bombs” at Chernobyl, along with purported clandestine biological and chemical weapons programs supported by the United States. This narrative was used to justify the invasion as a means of denuclearizing Ukraine.
- Portrayal of Ukraine as Irresponsible: Ukraine is depicted as a reckless nuclear energy user, risking catastrophic incidents akin to Chernobyl. Accusations extend to Ukraine allegedly storing foreign nuclear waste improperly and against local wishes, while discrediting International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) assistance missions as provocative.
- Nuclear Terrorism Accusations: This narrative frames Ukrainian military actions as endangering the protected status of NPPs, casting Russia as the sole guarantor of their safety. Simultaneously, Russia denies its military equipment’s presence inside the plant and accuses Ukraine of housing Western-supplied weapons in its facilities.
- Uncertainty Over Occupied Plants’ Fate: There is ambiguity about Russia’s plans for the occupied plants, especially Zaporizhzhia, in the event of a Ukrainian counteroffensive. This involves covert threats of sabotage or mining to cause radiation leaks.
These narratives and actions raise profound concerns about nuclear safety and security in a conflict zone, marking a dangerous departure from previous military engagements involving nuclear facilities.
Safeguarding nuclear facilities
Przybylak’s study reveals that strategically located NPPs can be utilized as nuclear shields by occupying forces, complicating counterattacks due to the catastrophic risk of radiation leaks. She underscores the necessity for robust international safeguards and response mechanisms to protect NPPs in conflict zones and highlights the need for comprehensive policies to prevent the exploitation of these facilities in future conflicts.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been vocal about enhancing the safety and security of NPPs in war zones, but shaping future policies and protocols to safeguard nuclear facilities from becoming pawns in military conflicts will not be an easy task.
Joanna Przybylak: Nuclear power plants in war zones: Lessons learned from the war in Ukraine (the Security & Defence Quarterly)