The Threat of Nuclear Disaster in Ukraine Exacerbates Global Energy Chaos

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Ukraine is one of the few countries that understands the dangers of nuclear energy. The now-decommissioned Chernobyl power plant is only a couple of hours’ drive from Kyiv. It was the site of perhaps the worst nuclear accident in history, and certainly the most notorious.

Nonetheless, despite the Chernobyl disaster, Ukraine did not abandon nuclear energy. The country has four nuclear power plants, each with 15 reactors. It is one of the world’s most nuclear-powered countries. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, these plants will provide 51 percent of Ukraine’s electricity in 2020, making them a critical source of energy for a middle-income country.

The conflict in Ukraine has highlighted the paradox of nuclear power’s risk and reward. Given the geopolitical realities of fossil fuels, Russia’s invasion earlier this year prompted many countries to reconsider nuclear power. Germany is the latest to consider delaying the planned shutdown of its nuclear plants in order to wean itself off Russian gas.

In many ways, these countries are following a pattern established by Ukraine. Concerns about Moscow cutting off gas supplies to Ukraine coincided with plans to spend billions on new nuclear plants a decade ago.

However, Russia’s invasion demonstrates the enormous threat nuclear power can pose in a conflict. Zaporizhzhia is Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, located in southeastern Ukraine. It has been held by Russian forces since March, but increased fighting in recent weeks has raised the specter of a nuclear disaster occurring alongside a brutal war for the first time.

What you need to know about Ukraine’s nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia.

Russia has been accused of using the plant, which is still operational and producing power, as a military staging area. A power plant employee and his driver were killed this week in a mortar explosion outside the facility, demonstrating how close it is to the front lines. The plant is already operating with a skeleton crew, employing less than 10% of its usual workforce.

Russia has its own reasons for occupying the plant. Ukraine claims Russia is attempting to connect the plant to its own power grid, effectively stealing up to a fifth of Ukraine’s electricity in one fell swoop if successful, despite the risks posed by the procedure. However, that risk may be the second strategy, providing Russian troops with some protection while posing an implicit threat to attackers.

Throughout the conflict, Russia has appeared willing to risk nuclear war. It took over the now-decommissioned Chernobyl site early in the war. Ukraine reported that when it left, safety equipment had been looted and buildings had been defaced. According to one official, the damage cost more than $135 million, if not more, because irreplaceable software was stolen.

The country has also repeatedly hinted at the use of nuclear weapons, which has alarmed many in the West.

The threat of an attack on a Ukrainian nuclear power plant has put the world on edge.

The fighting near Zaporizhzhia endangers many people outside Ukraine. A U.N. Security Council meeting on Tuesday expressed concern about fighting near the Zaporizhzhia power plant. The global stakes were made clear by a United Nations expert who briefed the council.

“We must be clear that any potential damage to Zaporizhzhia or any other nuclear facility in Ukraine that leads to a possible nuclear incident would have catastrophic consequences, not only for the immediate vicinity, but for the region and beyond,” said Rosemary DiCarlo, United Nations under-secretary-general for political and peacebuilding affairs.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the world’s top nuclear watchdog, hopes to visit the site within days.

The main risk is not necessarily that a reactor will be struck, but that a series of events could cut off the plant’s electricity supply, causing cooling systems to fail and the nuclear power plant to overheat. Though backup generators are available, there are no guarantees in a bitter and often brutal conflict.

“Nuclear power plants are simply not designed to be in war zones,” said James Acton, co-director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Nuclear Policy Program, to my colleague Claire Parker.

Surprisingly, nuclear energy grew in popularity following the invasion of Ukraine. Though organizations such as Greenpeace and others had warned of the potential threat to nuclear sites during a conflict, some governments saw energy insecurity as a far more immediate threat.

Even Germany, which had pledged to phase out nuclear energy by the end of the year, is now quietly debating whether it can keep some of its nuclear power plants operational temporarily in order to avoid being dependent on Moscow’s gas supply this winter.

In theory, European countries that use nuclear energy extensively are less vulnerable to Russian restrictions. Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, announced plans to build up to eight new nuclear plants by 2050 so that his country would not be “subject to blackmail, as it were, by people like Vladimir Putin.”

However, the reality is more complicated. France, the world’s most nuclear-reliant country, is already dealing with rising energy prices as a result of multiple problems at the country’s nuclear power operator.

Meanwhile, the situation in Ukraine demonstrates that nuclear power plants cannot be assumed to be conflict-free. According to Mark Hibbs, a nonresident senior fellow in Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Program, “until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, no nuclear power plant has ever been attacked, overrun, and occupied by an invading army.”

There are now two. And the danger isn’t limited to Ukraine or physical conflict: The US unsealed charges against four Russian officials in March, accusing them of carrying out a series of cyberattacks against US infrastructure. Is there one obvious target? In Kansas, there is a nuclear power plant.

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