As the war in Ukraine drags on, daily developments at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant explode on our Google News screens. Last week, external power needed to prevent a core meltdown at the plant was cut off repeatedly, forcing reliance on emergency diesel generators.
Meanwhile, Russians have tortured, kidnapped, and killed Ukrainian staff at the plant to force them to renounce their loyalty to Ukraine and sign employment contracts with Rosatom, Russia’s electrical utility. Poland, Romania, Ukraine, Moldova, and Finland have all begun distributing iodine pills to reduce thyroid cancers if there is a loss of coolant accident at Zaporizhzhia and a radiological release that drifts their way.
And Washington’s response? Several senior US officials have condemned Russia’s assaults on Zaporizhzhia as being “irresponsible” and “dangerous.” Yet, well after Russia’s military assault on the plant, Westinghouse, the Energy and State Departments, and the President announced plans to construct nuclear power plants in Poland, Romania, and even Ukraine. No one has yet explained how or if these plants can be defended.
This is weird. Plants in Central Europe, like Zaporizhzhia, are not just electrical generators, they are stationary, potential slow-burning nuclear dispersal weapons that could conceivably trigger or even force a NATO response. Plants and such war zones present a real and present danger.
Late last month, the U.S. Army War College asked me to write a short piece on the military risks nuclear plants in war zones present. Attached, “Present Danger: Nuclear Plants in War,” is that analysis. It lays out a basic set of recommendations for the Pentagon.
October 19, 2022
Author: Henry Sokolski
Present Danger: Nuclear Power Plants in War
Zaporizhzhya’s nuclear plant, as of this writing, has been placed on cold shutdown. The plant and its military vulnerabilities, however, have generated some of the world’s most sensational headlines.1 Earlier this summer, online reports featured photographs of the plant’s damaged transformer, a system critical to assuring a steady supply of electricity to the plant’s all-important reactor coolant and safety systems. Throughout August and September, news organizations detailed how the plant’s external main power lines—built to keep electricity flowing to its reactors—had been cut. Some days, some of the plant’s six reactors were operating. Other days, none were. Repeatedly, the viability of the plant’s emergency diesel fuel electrical generators was “Topic A.”
Each of these stories raised the specter of a military-induced Fukushima: strikes against the plant or the power lines feeding into it that could cut off the electricity needed to run the reactors’ coolant pumps and safety equipment followed by nuclear fuel failures and a massive radiological release over Ukraine and its neighbors. Add to this firsthand accounts of Russian torture, the murder of “disloyal” Ukrainian reactor staff, and an emergency International Atomic Energy Agency visit, and you have everything needed for a Netflix docudrama.
What you would not have, however, and what is still lacking, is a Pentagon assessment of what all this means militarily.
Close friends have offered hints. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida called for stationing security forces at each of Japan’s nuclear plants, and his administration also suggested the possibility of deploying dedicated missile defense systems (as Belarus has done at its nuclear plant since 2019).2 Seoul crafted military exercises this year with US forces that included explosives detonating at one or more of South Korea’s civilian reactor sites.3 Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russia of turning Zaporizhzhya into a prepositioned, slow-burning, radiation-dispersing “nuclear weapon.”4 Meanwhile, Tobias M. Ellwood, the British House of Common’s Select Committee on Defense chairman, insisted that if Russia intentionally struck Zaporizhzhya and spread harmful radioactivity to Poland or Romania, it would trigger NATO’s Article 5.5 Moldova, Romania, and Ukraine did more than talk. All three countries prepared to distribute iodine pills to their citizens (to reduce the thyroid cancers radiation might induce if Zaporizhzhya leaked radiation).6
- Wikipedia, s.v. “Crisis at the Zaporizhizhia Nuclear Power Plant,” last modified September 14, 2022, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crisis_at_the_Zaporizhzhia_Nuclear_Power_Plant.
- Eric Johnston, “Japan to Discuss Creating New Police Unit to Guard Nuclear Plants,” Japan Times (website), March 14, 2022, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2022/03/14/national/nuclear-plant-police -unit/; and “TOR-M2 Air Defense Missile Systems to Protect Belarus Nuclear Power Plant,” Army Recognition (website), December 8, 2018, https://www.armyrecognition.com/december_2018_global_defense_security_army _news_industry/tor-m2_air_defense_missile_systems_to_protect_belarus_nuclear_power_plant.html.
- Sang-ho Song, “Upcoming S. Korea-U.S. Training Involves Drills on Repelling Attacks, Staging Counterattacks,” Yonhap News Agency (website), August 1, 2022, https://en.yna.co.kr/view /AEN20220801004000325.
- Rebecca Falconer, “Zelensky Says Russian Forces Using Zaporizhzhia Plant as ‘Nuclear Weapon,’ ” Axios (website), September 4, 2022, https://www.axios.com/2022/09/05/zelensky-russia-zaporizhzhia-plant -nuclear-weapon.
- Article 5 requires NATO members come to the defense of any other member that suffers a military attack. See Tobias M. Ellwood (@Tobias_Ellwood), “Let’s make it clear: ANY deliberate damage causing potential radiation leak to a Ukrainian nuclear reactor would be a breach of NATO’s Article 5. @thetimes,” Twitter, August 19, 2022, 1:55 a.m., https://twitter.com/Tobias_Ellwood/status/1560505699179925509?s=20& t=FYfhPvuxW0pHm8lwXfe99w.
- Josh Lederman, “Radiation Tablets Are Handed out near Ukrainian Nuclear Plants as Fears of a Leak Mount,” NBC News (website), August 26, 2022, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/russia-ukraine-war -zaporizhzhia-nuclear-plant-radiation-fears-iodine-rcna45041; Ben Turner, “Ukraine War: Moldova Ships in One Million Iodine Pills amid Fears of Nuclear Disaster,” Euronews (website), August 16, 2022, https: // www.euronews.com /2022 /08 /15 /moldova-ships-in-radiation-pills-as-fighting-rages-near-zaporizhzhia -nuclear-power-plant-i; and Helen Collis, “Romania to Issue Iodine Tablets as Russian War Continues in Neighboring Ukraine,” Politico (website), April 3, 2022, https://www.politico.eu/article/romania-to-issue -iodine-tablets-as-russian-aggression-continues-in-bordering-ukraine/.
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