Putin’s Other Nuclear Threat – WSJ

Tactical and strategic weapons are not the only nuclear threat posed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This became clear last Friday during the attack on Europe’s largest nuclear power plant – the Zaporizhzhya power plant in Enerhodar. Russian troops shelled the plant and started a fire in the plant’s administration facility, which caused alarms around the world. The fire did not affect the six reactors or the stored spent fuel, and Russian forces occupied the facility without a radiation leak.

“We survived the night that could have ended history,” said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The attack removed any doubt about it

Wladimir Putin

is willing to risk nuclear catastrophe. If Ukraine loses the capacity to secure and protect fuel rods, waste and other radioactive material at its civilian nuclear power plants, it will endanger the environment, safety and public health far beyond Ukraine’s borders. Western powers must be aware of this danger as they consider how to respond to Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine.

Russia, a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency, is party to several agreements under which any armed attack on nuclear facilities serving peaceful purposes violates the United Nations Charter, the Geneva Conventions and the IAEA Statute. But control of energy supply and distribution is a key military objective for an invader: it would stifle Ukraine’s ability to keep the lights on across the country.

Ukraine is highly dependent on nuclear power. According to the World Nuclear Association, baseload power generation comes predominantly from nuclear power plants with Soviet-era VVER reactor designs (about 54%) and older coal-fired plants (about 29%).

The four active nuclear power plants in Ukraine have 15 reactors with an installed capacity of 13.8 gigawatts. In addition to Zaporizhzhya’s six reactors, Khmelnytska near Netishyn has two reactors; Rivne in the West Polissya region, four; and Yuzhnoukrainsk, in the Nickolaev region, three. These Russian-designed facilities were commissioned between 1980 and 2004 and have received significant safety upgrades from the IAEA and the West.

With Ukraine’s operating reactors meeting IAEA and World Association of Nuclear Operators requirements and safety standards, the challenge is to ensure continued compliance – a daunting but essential task amid the most intense fighting in Europe since World War II.

In 1986, Soviet Ukraine was the scene of the world’s worst nuclear accident. Poorly trained personnel were testing systems at the RBMK reactor at Chernobyl, some 70 miles northwest of Kyiv, when a sudden power surge triggered an explosion that destroyed Unit 4 and released at least 5% of its core into the environment. Authorities evacuated an “exclusion zone” of about 1,000 square miles.

An early warning of Moscow’s intentions came on February 24, when Russian troops seized the disused Chernobyl facility. According to Ukraine’s State Nuclear Regulatory Agency, gamma-ray dose rates measured the next day in the Chernobyl exclusion zone exceeded control levels because “the top layer of soil was disturbed by the movement of large numbers of heavy military machinery through the exclusion zone.” The IAEA reported that these levels are not dangerous.

Mr. Putin’s attempt to crush the Ukrainian state dramatically increases the likelihood of another avoidable catastrophe. Russian forces captured the Zaporizhzhya area on March 2. Poignant images showed power plant workers and volunteers from Energodar bravely, peacefully and unsuccessfully attempting to block the highway leading to the power plant. It was sheer luck that the fire, now extinguished, did not damage critical assets such as storage areas or cause a loss of coolant, exposed the core and raised temperatures to melt the fuel and cause a radioactive release.

Russian forces are threatening Ukraine’s other three nuclear power plants. Safety improvements at Ukraine’s nuclear power plants provide several measures to maintain reactor core integrity and manage fuel rod coolant losses. But operators must enter the facility and control key equipment to avoid catastrophic heat build-ups in the reactor. Cooling water and an ultimate heatsink are required. Sufficient electricity must be available within a reasonable time so that the pumps can bring in cooling water and prevent an accident like the one in Fukushima.

Mr. Putin is attacking not only Ukraine, but also the international order that protects the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Securing Ukraine’s nuclear power plants and radioactive materials is urgently needed. The question is whether the US, in cooperation with Britain, the European Union and other countries, can achieve rapid de-escalation of the conflict and immediate protection through diplomacy. Or must they act decisively and through limited intervention to protect and secure Ukraine’s vulnerable nuclear power plants and other radioactive materials? Averting disaster may depend on the answer.

Mr. Regens is Regents Professor and Director of the Center for Intelligence and National Security at the University of Oklahoma and has served as Chair of IAEA Technical Advisory Committees. Mr. Hughes, a nuclear engineer, is the managing director of Etranco Inc.

Journal Editorial Report: The West is looking for alternatives to the no-fly zone. Images: US Air Force/AP/Getty Images/AFP Composite: Mark Kelly

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