As Russia’s buildup on the Ukrainian border continues, few observers note that an invasion of Ukraine could put nuclear reactors on the front line of military conflict. The world is underestimating the risk that full-scale, no-holds-barred conventional warfare could spark a catastrophic reactor failure, causing an unprecedented regional nuclear emergency.
The threat is real. Ukraine is heavily dependent upon nuclear power, maintaining four nuclear power plants and stewardship of the shattered nuclear site at Chernobyl. In a major war, all 15 reactors at Ukraine’s nuclear power facilities would be at risk, but even a desultory Russian incursion into eastern Ukraine is likely to expose at least six active reactors to the uncertainty of a ground combat environment.
The world has little experience with reactors in a war zone. Since humanity first harnessed the atom, the world has only experienced two “major” accidents—Chernobyl and Japan’s Fukushima disaster. A Russian invasion, coupled with an extended conventional war throughout Ukraine, could generate multiple International Atomic Energy Agency “Level 7” accidents in a matter of days. Such a contingency would induce a massive refugee exodus and could render much of Ukraine uninhabitable for decades.
Turning the Ukraine into a dystopian landscape, pockmarked by radioactive exclusion zones, would be an extreme method to obtain the defensive zone Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to want. Managing a massive Western-focused migratory crisis and environmental cleanup would absorb Europe for years. The work would distract European leaders and empower nativist governments that tend to be aligned with Russia’s baser interests, giving an overextended Russia breathing room as the country teeters on the brink of technological, demographic, and financial exhaustion.
Put bluntly, the integrity of Ukrainian nuclear reactors is a strategic matter, critical for both NATO and non-NATO countries alike. Causing a severe radiological accident for strategic purposes is unacceptable. A deliberate aggravation of an emerging nuclear catastrophe—preventing mitigation measures or allowing reactors to deliberately melt down and potentially contaminate wide portions of Europe—would simply be nuclear warfare without bombs.
Such a scenario can’t be ruled out. Russia has repeatedly used Ukraine to test out concepts for “Gray Zone” warfare, where an attacker dances just beyond the threshold of open conflict. Given Russia’s apparent interest in radiation-spewing nuclear-powered cruise missiles, robotic undersea bombs with a radiological fallout-oriented payload, destructive anti-satellite tests and other nihilistic, world-harming weapons, Russia’s ongoing dalliance with “Gray Zone” warfare in Ukraine may, for the rest of Europe, become a real matter of estimating radiological “grays,” or the amount of ionizing radiation absorbed by humans.
When War Comes To Zaporizhzhia
Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant is a particular risk. It is the second-largest nuclear power plant in Europe (essentially tied with a French reactor complex near Calais), and one of the 10 largest nuclear power plants in the world. The site has little protection, and the six VVER-1000 pressurized water reactors could easily be embroiled in any Russian invasion.
If war comes, the fight will be close by. The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant is located only 120 miles from the current “front line” in the Donbass region and is on the hard-to-defend east bank of the Dnieper River. Aside from the geographical hazards, the power plant provides about a quarter of Ukraine’s total electrical power. Given the importance of the electricity, plant managers will be reluctant to shut it down, securing the reactors only at the very last possible second. Ukraine’s desperate need for energy only compounds the opportunities for an accident.
Outside of direct battle damage, cyber and other Russian-sourced “grey zone” mischief could make the plant unmanageable even before the battle arrives at the reactor gates.
Though unlikely, direct bombardment could cause serious damage to reactor containment structures. While the reactor structures themselves are strong, warfare at the plant could kill key personnel and destroy command-and-control structures, monitoring sensors or critical reactor-cooling infrastructure. And, as an operating power plant, the reactors are not the only threat. Dangerous spent fuel rods are sitting in vulnerable cooling ponds, while older fuel sits in the site’s 167 dry spent fuel assemblies.
If the reactors suffer any operational anomalies, crisis management is not going to happen. Support infrastructure needed for safe reactor management will collapse during conflict. Plant security forces will disappear, operators will flee, and, if an accident occurs, mitigating measures will be impossible.
It seems unlikely that Russia has mobilized trained reactor operators and prepared reactor crisis-management teams to take over any “liberated” power plants. The heroic measures that kept the Chernobyl nuclear accident and Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster from becoming far more damaging events just will not happen in a war zone.
Again, the risks are very high. The world has never dealt with an unmanaged meltdown at a large nuclear power plant. The very real prospect of an extended and unmitigated incident at a six-reactor powerplant in a war zone is worth urgent and immediate consultations throughout Europe and NATO.
What Happens At Zaporizhzhia Won’t Stay There
Nuclear disasters are rarely localized events. When Chernobyl occurred, Putin was enjoying a KGB posting in East Germany. He certainly must recall that the accident released a stew of dangerous radioactive contaminants into the air, spreading contamination—and fear—across Europe. One dangerous contaminant, caesium-137, spread thousands of miles, though most “fell” out of the atmosphere within 200 miles of the stricken plant, creating large “no-go” zones in areas of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.
The same would be true of Zaporizhzhia. If the reactors are damaged in late December or early January, the prevailing winds and weather patterns can be expected to push dangerous levels of caesium-137 and other contaminants directly to the west. The fallout will contaminate Ukraine’s key waterway, Europe’s breadbasket, and potentially—depending on the contamination types and weather patterns—compromising drinking water supplies across Europe.
Tactically, radioactive plumes would make nearly every civilian nearby flee, degrading Ukrainian defensive efforts. The fallout could even force the three reactors at the South Ukraine Nuclear Power Plant—barely 160 miles downwind—to shut down, further weakening Ukraine’s electricity supply and its defenses.
Gray Zone Nuclear Conflict Can Happen
The world has never experienced war that threatens active nuclear power infrastructure, and world leaders may be underestimating the peril conventional warfare presents to these powerful and perilous assets.
On the other hand, heedless purveyors of “gray zone” warfare may be underestimating the risk themselves, all too eager to determine just how degraded nuclear infrastructure might serve as a “less risky” surrogate for nuclear conflict.
To them, it’s not nuclear war, but just a series of unfortunate nuclear accidents.