The New Nuclear Anxiety

August 15, 2022

A number of military incidents in Ukraine have brought a new concern about nuclear power into public awareness and could undermine trust in the technology. Whereas challenges to nuclear power have tended to focus on internal risks that can be controlled with technology and oversight, the recent military accidents could shift focus from preventable risks to unpredictable external threats.

What happened?

            In February, the arrival of Russian soldiers at Chernobyl sparked alarm on the potential for some form of collateral damage. Speculation at that time focused on what impact the movement of troops could have on the integrity of the plant and the safety of its caretaker scientists, and, if nothing else, for the soldiers who spent their time digging trenches in radioactive soil.

Fighting in the Donbas also raised early worries about a potential accident as Europe’s largest nuclear plant came under fire at Zaporizhzhia. That fear came closer to reality last week after a series of rocket strikes disabled infrastructure and disrupted crucial monitoring systems.

Zaporizhzhia NPP, which houses 6 of Ukraine’s 15 reactors for a combined 5700Mwe capacity, fell under Russian control in March and has been used as an artillery base since July. Between Friday and Saturday (Aug. 5-6), the plant suffered fire damage to an external power supply line and its nitrogen-oxygen station. Additional damage was reported to radiation control system communication cables and the fuel storage facility (sparing in-use containers). New strikes on Thursday damaged the plant’s fire station and its radiation monitoring equipment.

Despite all this, preliminary assessments have been relatively positive. The plant’s safety systems are undamaged and radiation levels are normal. The plant is however operating at limited capacity, with only 2 of 6 units in service. Any chance for demilitarization is uncertain: IAEA inspectors have so far not been allowed to access the grounds, leaving it as a vulnerable military position for the foreseeable future.

Nuclear Europe

The specific nature of these events has obvious implications for countries facing credible security threats. More broadly, nuclear anxiety spreads globally following a serious accident. Fears over the potential effects of a disaster often carry more weight with the public than the safeguards and precautions within the operator’s control. It was the 2011 leak at Fukushima Daiichi that drove Germany’s commitment to end its use of nuclear power, more reflective of a fear of the unknown than of tsunamis. The situation in Ukraine shows that armed violence is another, in many cases more likely, threat that can be even more difficult to control.

Yet, the threat of war has been a major driver for nuclear power. Although Chernobyl arrested nuclear development in the region for decades, in recent years its legacy gave way to the increasing urgency of climate change and energy security. Russia’s gas wars with Ukraine and the invasion of Crimea alerted many to the real cost of cheap Russian energy and spurred a movement for decoupling. In Poland, this materialized as a commitment to jump from zero nuclear reactors to six by 2040.

Europe’s pro-nuclear crusaders appeared to be vindicated by the war in Ukraine and their faith may not be shaken from last week’s events. States in Russia’s orbit have stronger urgency than ever to decouple from power networks planned during the Soviet era and realign fully to a European alternative. But, just as importantly, they can take comfort in NATO protection to forge ahead with their projects. That external security is not a luxury all countries have.

What does it mean?

So, what will nuclear power mean for modern conflict? Ukraine’s NPPs did not deter the Russian invasion. In fact, they were high-value targets. Zaporizhzhia NPP also apparently failed to serve as a safe space even on a tactical level. While the secure nature of a nuclear facility makes it a tempting place to take shelter, it is not enough to protect against accidents.

While potentially vulnerable states may hope for nuclear power to fill an important niche in protecting their energy supply, it is more difficult now to assume its safety in wartime. Even in peace, sabotage and cyberattacks will be a continual source of anxiety.

Just the potential threat of nuclear development is raised to justify wars, and the defending country assumes almost all risk in an invasion. In the shadow of a hostile neighbor, nuclear power might be seen as more of a liability than an asset as long as the public cannot assume its safety. A major disaster in Zaporizhzhia or elsewhere could force countries in Europe and abroad to once again reassess if can actually manage the risks of nuclear power.