As the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) prepares to visit Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, we should be under no illusions: nothing it can do to check the plant’s safety can reduce the risks of it or other nuclear plants being hit in war. Those odds are growing.
As I argue in today’s The National Interest, “The Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Plant Is Kindling for World War III,” nuclear plants in war zones should be viewed as being prepositioned radioactivity dispersal systems that military assaults can trigger. This raises not just nuclear safety issues, but first-order military concerns. Russia says it intends to take all of Ukraine. Outside of Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine still has nine operating nuclear plants. Meanwhile, former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev recently made a veiled threat against reactors throughout Europe. China also has considered striking Taiwan’s nuclear plants and North Korea attacking reactors in the South.
All of this raises a number of military questions.
One of them is war escalation. If Russia intentionally strikes Zaporizhzhia and it spreads harmful radioactivity to Poland or Romania, what should NATO’s response be? The chairman of the British House of Commons’ Select Committee on Defense insists it would be a breach of NATO’s Article V — an act that would demand NATO members come to the defense of members that had suffered a military attack.
Meanwhile, the U.S. European Command announced it is assessing the safety of U.S. troops that might suffer exposure to Zaporizhzhian radioactivity. If they or our allies were intentionally exposed to radiation as a result of hostile military action, what military response, if any, would be warranted? Do we know? Are we trying to find out?
Then, there is the matter of defenses, active and passive, for nuclear plants. Belarus deploys an advanced air and cruise missile unit at its nuclear plant. Japan is considering deploying such defenses. Should others with or planning to have nuclear plants in potential war zones do likewise? What of hardening key features of nuclear plants or making them more redundant?
Much is made of making reactor’s containment building hard enough to sustain attacks. What of the spent fuel storage areas, the electrical power lines, the electrical transformers, the emergency diesel generators, the reactor control room, and the steam generator piping? Does their redundancy or hardening need upgrading now? Do we have answers? Are we reassessing them?
Finally, in light of these questions, how much sense does it make to encourage construction of more nuclear plants in Ukraine, Poland, Romania, and the Middle and Far East? That is currently U.S. policy. Taiwan has decided to stop building reactors, in part, due to their vulnerability to military assaults. Is this the only place such conservatism is warranted?
August 31, 2022
Author: Henry Sokolski
By Henry Sokolski
As the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) readies itself to visit the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in Ukraine, Western officials are sighing a sigh of relief. However, there is a worry they have yet to consider—how civilian nuclear plants in war zones are becoming radiological bombs that could ignite World War III.
Seem shrill? Late last week, the chairman of the Select Committee on Defense in the British House of Commons warned that “any deliberate damage causing potential radiation leak to a Ukrainian nuclear reactor would be a breach of NATO’s Article 5.” Article V of the NATO treaty requires all signatories to come to the defense of any alliance members that suffer an armed attack.
How imminent might a radiological release be? Late Thursday, all external power to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant was cut off. The only source of electricity was the plant’s emergency diesel generators, which had no more than five days of fuel to power the plant’s essential safety and fuel-cooling electric water pumps. Had those generators run short of fuel (which could be exacerbated by Russian pilfering) and the one remaining power line not been reconnected, a loss of coolant accident (think Fukushima) could have ensued in eighty minutes.
Ukrainian authorities understand this. That’s why last week they distributed iodine tablets to Ukrainians to reduce thyroid cancers if the Zaporizhzhia plant should blow. Romania, a NATO nation, also grasps this: Earlier in the month, its health minister encouraged Romanians to pick up free iodine pills at their local pharmacies. Last week, Romania’s neighbor, Moldova, imported one million tablets for its own population.
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