Putin’s war in Ukraine and nuclear energy

Theoretically, nuclear fission could play a big role in providing energy-rich lifestyles to people around the world without climate change.

At the same time, there are severe economic, social, and political headwinds to even maintaining existing capacity, much less building more.

Now, I fear that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will add further causes for concern. Ukraine has four nuclear plants and 15 operating reactors — any of which could be damaged intentionally or unintentionally by combat, or which could experience a station blackout if the electricity grid goes down.

Russia’s actions are calling into question longstanding assumptions about global stability. If conflict will again be a feature of life in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia then potentially nuclear operators who already have public acceptance and cost competitiveness against other forms of energy generation as major concerns will have another reason to be wary of reactors. If an incident actually occurs at a Ukrainian nuclear facility, those public and elite concerns will be far more salient.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

24 thoughts on “Putin’s war in Ukraine and nuclear energy”

  1. “Orlov and other Ukrainian officials said earlier that a fire had broken out at the nuclear plant itself, but the state emergency services agency later confirmed the fire had broken out at a training building outside the plant perimeter.

    The agency said the third power unit of six at the station was disconnected, adding only one power unit was currently operating.

    “We demand that they stop the heavy weapons fire,” Andriy Tuz, spokesperson for the Zaporizhzhia plant, said in a video posted on Telegram.”


  2. “What makes it unprecedented is this is the first time in post-second world war history we have a full-fledged military operation amidst…a big number of nuclear facilities, including nuclear reactors,” said Grossi.
    “There is always the danger of military activity that could affect the sites or that there might be some interruption or some disruption in the normal operation of any of these facilities that may result in a problem or an accident,” he said.


  3. Fighting has stopped near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and background radiation levels are currently normal as a fire continued at the facility, a spokesperson at the plant said on Friday.

    Spokesperson Andrii Tuz said the plant has not sustained any critical damage, although only one power generation unit out of six is operational.

    In an earlier Facebook post, Tuz said at least one power generating unit at the nuclear plant was struck in the fighting. “A lot of technical equipment was hit,” he told CNN.

    Firefighters met with guns: Earlier Friday, Ukrainian officials said firefighters were unable to access the nuclear plant. Tuz said when firefighters initially arrived, they were met with guns and turned around.


  4. This morning Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, said that in ignoring the iaea’s call Russian troops had committed a “terror attack”. “They know what they are shooting at. They’ve been preparing for this,” Mr Zelensky wrote online. Stray shells could have damaged the infrastructure that allows a reactor to function safely, either by cutting off the water supply used to take heat from the core and drive the plant’s mighty turbines or by damaging the diesel reactors that power the back-up cooling pumps. If a nuclear reactor loses the ability to cool itself, it risks going into meltdown.

    Operational nuclear reactors have never been in the firing line like this. Reactors under construction have been attacked and destroyed before; Israel has levelled two, one in Iraq in 1981 and another in Syria in 2007. There have been wars on the territory of countries with operational reactors, such as skirmishes on the India-Pakistan border and the conflicts between Armenia and Azerbaijan. But in those cases the fighting took place hundreds of miles away from the reactors themselves. To have an operational nuclear plant seized by force is unprecedented.


  5. Chernobyl nuclear plant running on generators with staff “living” there since Russian attack

    Repairs to Chernobyl’s electrical system, damaged during a Russian attack on March 9, are ongoing, as the nuclear power plant is now dependent on external diesel generators to keep its reactors operating, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said Saturday.

    Alexey Likhachev, the director general of Russia’s nuclear agency Rosatom, told the IAEA additional fuel arrived on March 11.

    Ukraine’s nuclear power plant operator Energoatom told the IAEA that Chernobyl’s 211 personnel and guards “have still not been able to rotate, in effect living there since the day before Russian forces took control.”

    “[IAEA] Director General Grossi has repeatedly stressed the urgent need to ensure they can properly rest and rotate, saying this is also a vital element for safe and secure nuclear power operation,” IAEA said in a statement.

    Regarding the situation at the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant (NPP), Ukraine said the site remains under Russian control and that Moscow is planning to take “full and permanent control.” It also said 400 Russian soldiers are “present full time” at the site.


  6. Another enormous risk lies in the potential disruption to Ukraine’s 15 operational nuclear plants. As Greenpeace detailed in a paper released on Wednesday on the vulnerability of nuclear plants during war, nuclear reactors and spent fuel reserves require flawless, continuous operation of complex energy- and water-intensive systems to properly cool the reactors to avoid meltdowns and explosions. Anything from an indiscriminately fired artillery shell to collapse of the power grid could precipitate a nuclear disaster surpassing those that befell Chernobyl or Fukushima, Japan.


  7. Workers kept the Russians from the most dangerous areas, but in what Semenov called the worst situation he has seen in his 30 years at Chornobyl, the plant was without electricity, relying on diesel generators to support the critical work of circulating water for cooling the spent fuel rods.

    “It was very dangerous to act in this way,” said Maksym Shevchuck, the deputy head of the state agency managing the exclusion zone. He was scared by it all.


  8. But the war has already brought a different kind of nuclear danger. It happened when Russia’s forces took over the site of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on the first day of the war and shelled and captured Zaporizhzhia, the largest nuclear power station in Europe with its six reactors, in early March.

    Muted responses, including from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has responsibility for the security of the world’s approximately 440 nuclear reactors (of which 15 are located in Ukraine), point to an inability to deal with the dangers posed by conventional warfare at nuclear sites. The IAEA’s early statements failed even to call Russia the aggressor or condemn its actions.

    The problem goes beyond one agency, however. No commercial nuclear reactors, as opposed to those which produce plutonium, have been built to withstand military attack. No protocols or regulations have ever been created to deal with the possibility of warfare at a nuclear power plant, and no body of international law, including conventions and agreements relating to conduct in war, adequately deal with the possibility.

    The first additional protocol of the Geneva Conventions on conduct in war comes from 1977. It treats nuclear power plants on a par with dams and dykes, and withholds protection from them if a plant “provides electric power in regular, significant and direct support of military operations and if such attack is the only feasible way to terminate such support”. It is too easy today to make a credible case for the legality of any attack on a nuclear reactor. This is a dangerous situation.


  9. “The Russian army seized the vast facility — the biggest in Europe, with six 950MW reactors — in the early weeks of its invasion, destroying a training office during the assault despite the obvious risks of damaging the plant and radiation leaks.

    Since then, Ukrainian officials say, the Russians have stationed 500 troops and heavy weapons within the perimeter — in breach of international energy conventions — and are using the reactor blocks to protect against retaliatory fire.”

  10. According to the Ukrainian military intelligence service HUR, Russia has around 1,000 soldiers in the city of Enerhodar. Five hundred more are stationed at the site of the nuclear power plant, including units of the National Guard and the Russian paramilitary Wagner Group. The fighters are armed with grenade launchers and anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, along with other equipment. “The enemy is using overpasses and canopies to place artillery and anti-aircraft weapons underneath,” says one intelligence official. “In addition, ammunition storage facilities are being set up in engineering rooms.” According to the Kremlin-critical Russian investigative portal The Insider, the engine room of Reactor Block 1 has been mined.

    “The Russians have stationed heavy weapons in Zaporizhzhia,” says engineer Ihor, adding that he has also seen troop carriers, rocket launchers and trucks. The Russians, he says, have dug trenches between the buildings and mined the river bank, with a stray dog dying when it stepped on a mine. Most recently, according to Ihor, Russian soldiers had also fortified positions with concrete blocks on the grounds of the nuclear power plant. “They’re preparing for a defensive fight, which is completely insane,” he says


  11. “I think it certainly says we should think hard about exporting nuclear reactors to countries that might actually have ground wars in them,” said Alan Kuperman, who leads the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “Do you really want to be selling reactors to a country that has a decent chance of being in an air war? It’s just one more concern, you have economics, you have nonproliferation, and now you have this concern of safety from wartime attacks.”


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