Russia is bombing its way toward nuclear catastrophe in Ukraine
BY ANDREW D’ANIERI AND VICTORIA VOYTSITSKA, OPINION CONTRIBUTORS – 04/11/23 9:00 AM ET
The world’s top nuclear energy official visited Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) on March 30 and confirmed that Russia’s war on Ukraine has put the stability of Europe’s largest nuclear plant in danger. After his trip to the ZNPP, Rafael Grossi, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), offered this bland but ominous statement, “It is obvious that military activity is increasing in this whole region. … This area is facing perhaps a more dangerous phase.”
Grossi and the IAEA must walk a fine line diplomatically to even get access to the ZNPP, which sits in Russia-occupied southeastern Ukraine, so he opted not to comment on what appears to be a new sinister Russian tactic: trying to induce Ukraine’s nuclear power stations into a catastrophic meltdown.
Ukraine has four operating nuclear power plants, including the massive ZNPP, now just behind Russian lines. The threat to the ZNPP is the most grave of Russia’s menacing waves of attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. Russian forces regularly shell the ZNPP’s surrounding area as a cynical way to discourage Ukrainian advances. In doing so, shelling attacks frequently cut off normal power supply to the plant, which dramatically raises the specter of nuclear reactor failure. Nuclear reactors need incoming energy to function properly; without it, the facilities must rely on stores of diesel fuel to run.
Grossi reported that on March 9, 2023, Russian attacks caused the ZNPP to lose “all off-site power. … As a result, all 20 of the site’s emergency diesel generators were activated. … This is the first time the site has lost all power since Nov. 23, 2022.” He noted that “this is the sixth time that the [ZNPP] has lost all off-site power and has had to operate in this emergency mode. … And if we allow this to continue, time after time, then one day our luck will run out.”
It appears Russia is trying to run down this luck by deliberately targeting the electrical substations and connection lines closest to Ukraine’s nuclear power stations. Russian shelling near the ZNPP in November 2022 disconnected the power station from its main “Dniprovska” power line, which is also one of three power lines connected to the Southern Ukrainian Nuclear Power Plant (SUNPP) in Mykolayiv Oblast. In effect, Russian artillery barrages cut connection to two of Ukraine’s nuclear power facilities, prompting SUNPP operators to reduce its power output to avert disaster. Subsequent shelling and rocket attacks near the SUNPP in February and March 2023 have prompted similar concerns.
The effect of this ultra-targeted campaign is twofold. Substations are key electrical grid nodes that receive energy from generating stations and distribute that energy into smaller branches of the grid toward cities and towns in Ukraine. Striking the substations cuts power to homes, schools, hospitals and businesses — precisely the inhumane bombing campaign that Western countries have condemned for the past several months.
This new spate of attacks could make things a whole lot worse. Nuclear power plants are an efficient source of power but cannot be shut off easily. So, when relevant substations are down, there is no outlet for nuclear power to be distributed through the rest of the network. As a result, energy builds up as it bounces back and forth between the only two possible endpoints — the reactor and the damaged substation. Think about a tennis ball thrown against a wall: the ball loses velocity after hitting the wall and eventually falls safely to the ground. But imagine a tennis ball thrown against a wall and then immediately racketed back against that wall — it will retain more velocity bouncing between those two points. This is the danger of Russia’s insidious new strategy: if enough energy builds up between the reactor and the substation, the whole system could crash.
If that were to happen, Ukraine and the world would be staring down a Russian-induced nuclear meltdown. Ukraine relies on nuclear power for over 50 percent of its energy supply. Russian forces’ sustained threat to the ZNPP has forced that plant to a complete shutdown. As IAEA chief Grossi noted, the safety and security of the ZNPP too frequently depends entirely on the external supply of electricity from the Ukrainian grid just to avoid collapse.
Even worse, Russia is targeting not just the ZNPP. The prospect of losing energy production from SUNPP, or Ukraine’s two other nuclear power plants in central-southern Khmelnytskyi Oblast and northwestern Rivne Oblast, to a Moscow missile attack would put the country in danger of severe, extended blackouts. Ukraine would be forced to rely on emergency power while trying to push Russian forces out of its territory and dealing with the environmental and humanitarian fallout of a nuclear disaster.
Such an attack would be an obvious escalation of the war. Vladimir Putin’s forces would have single-handedly created a nuclear disaster in the heart of Europe. As Grossi and the IAEA make clear, this is not a distant prospect. A Russian-induced nuclear accident and the ensuing environmental and health disaster would require a strong, swift response from Ukraine’s Western allies and from Russia’s two major diplomatic partners, China and India.
To help reduce the threat of a nuclear accident, the United States should first publicly announce that it believes Russia is deliberately targeting Ukraine’s nuclear power plants through strikes on adjacent energy infrastructure. The Biden administration has done this effectively before by preempting planned Russian provocations in January 2022, and in 2023 on the possibility of China sending Russia weapons and Russia’s stirring up tensions in Moldova. Therefore, the administration must make the deliberate sabotage of civilian facilities and its auxiliary infrastructure that provides safety and security of NPPs a clear “red line” not to cross.
The administration would do well to pair this message with the threat of coordinated U.S.-European Union sanctions on Russian state-owned nuclear energy company Rosatom. This would signal Moscow that “we know what you’re doing; knock it off.”
Leaders from China and India have reportedly conveyed to Putin that Russia’s use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine would be unacceptable. The U.S. should engage Beijing and India to get word to Putin that Russia’s attacks on nuclear energy facilities and relevant substations would also be “red lines.”
Washington can also help stop Russia’s attacks at their source. Supplying Ukraine with longer-range missile systems, such as Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), would force the Russian military to move their positions back to 300 kilometers from the front lines. U.S. provisions of 80-kilometer range High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) have helped Ukraine win back Kherson and fend off Russian attacks in the east using this strategy.
ATACMS would give Ukraine an even better chance of breaking Russian lines again in its expected summer counteroffensive and liberate the ZNPP. Russian forces certainly could still threaten Ukrainian energy facilities, but they would have to expend precious stores of longer-range missiles to do so and could not indiscriminately shell the ZNPP in particular.
To combat the effectiveness of Moscow’s longer-range capabilities, Western partners also should continue to supply Ukraine with long-promised air defense systems. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told President Biden in January 2023 that the Netherlands “has the intention” to send Ukraine a Patriot air defense battery. The Dutch Ministry of Defense confirmed this provision three days later — but where is it?
The Biden administration continues to hold out on sending Ukraine F-16 fighter jets over Moscow in fact is escalating the war. Among the jets’ many uses, Ukraine could employ F-16s to shoot down high-trajectory Russian rockets that ground-based air defense systems struggle to locate. The ability to prevent a nuclear disaster — and thus further escalation — should be reason enough for the White House to send F-16s to Ukraine.America needs to sort out its industrial policy confusionIs anti-‘sweatshop’ activism making Bangladeshis poorer?
The world recoiled in horror when Russia began its campaign to freeze Ukrainians last fall. Moscow is now raising the stakes and not-so-subtly aiming to cause a nuclear catastrophe in southern Ukraine. This requires a robust response from the West and earnest engagement from China and India with the Kremlin. The only person who may stand to gain from causing a nuclear meltdown in Ukraine is Putin — world leaders must combine forces to stop him.
Andrew D’Anieri is assistant director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. Follow him on Twitter @andrew_danieri.
Victoria Voytsitska is a former member of parliament in the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine. Follow her on Twitter @VVoytsitska.