Putin and some other Kremlin belligerents have thrown around the word “nuclear” in a way one would only expect to hear from the deranged. But the reaction to their threats has focused on the possible use of nuclear weapons.
However, given Russia’s war has evolved into savage artillery fire, missile launches, and bombings far beyond military targets we must worry about the possibility of another type of devastating nuclear disaster.
Here David Mohler, a member of the Friends of Ukraine Network, discusses the threat Putin’s indiscriminate war poses to nuclear power stations and the consequences should they intentionally or carelessly to hit.
Shelter Ukraine’s Power Sector
President Biden travels to Europe this week to consult with E.U. leaders and other NATO leaders on Russia’s devastation of Ukraine and the humanitarian crisis it has caused. As its all-out assault bogs down, Russia is targeting deliberately civilians and key infrastructure in a manner that serves no military purpose other than to terrorize the population and to destroy their country. This extends to the electric power sector, which is the backbone of every country’s economy. If allowed to continue, the effects, particularly at nuclear power plants, will have significant consequences in Europe and globally.
This indiscriminate and irresponsible targeting is reminiscent of what Russia did when it started this war back in 2014. Late that year, the thermal power plants at Slavayanska were shelled by Russian-sponsored separatists and the switchyard, turbine hall, and administration building were severely damaged. By the time I visited Slavayanska in late 2016, the switchyard had been restored and the buildings were undergoing repair still.
The thermal units at Slavayanska provide heat and hot water to the surrounding community of about 12,000 people. Most of the power plants in Ukraine, both nuclear and non-nuclear, provide some level of combined heat and power. The attack on the Slavayanska plant appeared calculated to demoralize and terrify civilians, rather than to serve some larger tactical or strategic military purpose.
Thus, the recent attacks at Zaporizhzhia, the site of the largest nuclear power complex in all of Europe, and the takeover of the Chernobyl site repeat tactics Russia used in 2014. The fifteen nuclear reactors in Ukraine supply half of the country's electricity. If the objective of the recent attacks had been to serve tactical objectives, the bombardments would have been focused on transmission infrastructure, as opposed to buildings. Destroying transmission infrastructure would reduce the ability to sustain cooling systems and communications systems at the plants and decrease stability of the power grid itself.
Nuclear reactor containment structures are designed to withstand severe stress, and the nuclear safety systems are designed to survive single failures. The more significant vulnerabilities are with standby power systems (e.g., diesel generators and their fuel supplies) and maintenance of oversight and control. News reports of operators and engineers being required to work without relief at some of the plants indicate a reduced ability to maintain oversight and control, with the Russian military denying or limiting access by qualified nuclear professionals.
If an attack on a nuclear power plant were successful in breaching reactor containment and lead to a release of a significant amount of radioactive material, the results can be catastrophic. Conducting an evacuation in wartime would represent challenges never before encountered, even at Fukushima Daichi, which was caused by an act of nature and not deliberate human malfeasance.
The repercussions could threaten the future of the global nuclear industry. This is a critical time when Europe and the rest of the world are debating nuclear power’s role in providing zero greenhouse gas emitting electricity to confront the global climate challenge and working on promising new nuclear technology, such as small modular reactors and fusion. To protect its own interests and to help Ukraine, the West must shelter civilian targets from Russian bombardment in Ukraine, not least its power sector including nuclear reactors. Otherwise, the world will have to pay severe costs for decades to come.
As President Biden and European leaders meet in Brussels on March 24, one month after Russia started this unprovoked and unjustified war, they will do well to remember that this fight is not only about Ukraine and its future but about our collective future.
David Mohler was U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Energy from 2015 to 2017. He worked previously in the electric utility industry, including in nuclear power operations and management. He retired from Duke Energy as a senior vice president and the chief technology officer. He is a member of the economic taskforce of the Friends of Ukraine Network (FOUN) of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation.
Please note the introductory comments are Mr. McConnell's and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation or the Friends of Ukraine Network.
Coordinator, External Relations
U.S.-Ukraine Foundation’s Friends of Ukraine Network
Robert A. McConnell is a co-founder of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation and Coordinator of External Relations for the Foundation’s Friends of Ukraine Network. He is Principal of R.A. McConnell and Associates. Previously, he has served as head of the Government Advocacy Practice at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, Vice President – Washington for CBS, Inc, and Assistant Attorney General in the Department of Justice during the Reagan Administration.