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Nuclear Power Plants in the Russo-Ukrainian War

Ukraine is sitting on a nuclear powder keg that threatens the world

Why is most of the media so blind to what is perhaps the largest material danger to the world from the grinding war in Ukraine – the threat of nuclear catastrophe? Don’t just take my word. It has been signalled publicly by the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

International Atomic Energy Agency Brief

On 25th January 2024, Rafael Grossi, director General of the IAEA, briefed the Security Council of the United Nations on the perilous condition of the Zaporizhzhia NPP nuclear power station, which sits in in the middle of the bitterly contested war zone. Its Europe’s largest, and now according to Grossi, probably the world’s most poorly maintained civil nuclear facility.

Immediately after the briefing Grossi held a press conference. He discussed the massive reduction in the number of back-up power lines, without which nuclear meltdown is a prospect. He described the shortages of easily accessible coolant water, made worse by the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam.

Grossi, a career diplomat, is careful in his use of words. When, in a press conference, he explains that the plant is “on the front line”, that on a bad day the prospect of a drone attack is worrying, and says we are “walking on thin ice”, the issues are serious, pressing and dangerous.

Zaporizhzhia Power Plant Update

Last year I wrote a paper for Scottish CND detailing the many disastrous implications of having a nuclear power plant in the middle of a war zone. In Castle Zaporizhzhia I outlined why it is impossible to fight what is normally described a non-nuclear conventional war with a nuclear power station in the battlefield.

The presence of Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant is more than an unwelcome inconvenience for the political leaders who ultimately call the shots in this war. It is also a huge challenge to proponents of civilian nuclear power, particularly those who promote small nuclear reactors as a clean energy source in the face of a climate emergency. The consequences of a nuclear breakdown would spill well beyond the war in Ukraine to every country that has built, intends to build, or hopes to build a nuclear power station as a low carbon producer of energy in an increasingly geopolitically unstable world.

The military have been pondering these issues for a very long time, even occasionally in public. But the media, governments and corporations have been studiously ignoring them. Why? 

It’s clear from the report underpinning Secretary General Grossi’s briefing to the UN security council that Russia is involved in a game of nuclear chicken – raw leverage for future invaders of countries with nuclear power stations. It took the IAEA six months, after Zaporizhzhia’s capture, to get Russia to agree to the establishment of a permanent rotating teams of IAEA inspectors. Today all nuclear power plants in Ukraine have IAEA inspectors on site. Indeed, the Zaporizhzhia team are on their sixteenth rotation.

IAEA teams report a worrying pattern of gradual decline in the maintenance and upkeep of this plant, with the Russian authorities appearing to play cat and mouse, as I predicted last year. At the tactical and operational level, only a military dimwit would give up the opportunity to keep the enemy guessing. 

On the Russian side the information war is well locked in, despite what some of our more excitable newspapers declare. Putin’s hold has been made even more secure by the cack-handed sanctions strategy of the West, based upon a neoliberal economic hubris which simply cannot countenance considering the lived reality of ordinary people. 

From 1941 until the 1970s, American working class/middle class prosperity was founded on a war economy undisturbed by enemy bombing or invasion. Keynesianism, in other words. Putin has now cornered himself into a situation where he believes he has no option but to rearm. Paradoxically these war economy jobs are delivering a bit of an economic popularity bump, like the FDR, but for other reasons.

The IAEA report highlights an existing, live, and increasingly dangerous nuclear dimension to the war in Ukraine. 

That could further undermine European public resolve, over and above the terrifying possibility of miscalculation from the presence of so-called tactical nuclear weapons. 

It is time we woke up to the global threat embedded in this conflict, and acted accordingly.