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The Russian Federation’s Acts of Nuclear Terrorism Must Be Stopped

Andrian Prokip


Three weeks before Russia launched a war against Ukraine, I wrote a column titled “Ukrainian Energy at Gunpoint” in which I analyzed the threats that Ukraine’s energy infrastructure could sustain in the event of full-scale warfare. The column gave critical attention to nuclear and hydropower facilities, the destruction of which could result in a pan-European humanitarian and environmental disaster. One of the goals in writing the column was to try to persuade international agencies, governments, and people the world over that preventing the war was not only in Ukraine’s best interests but also in the interests of all Europe and the entire globe.

After the column appeared, I had numerous conversations and email exchanges with journalists, analysts, and even officials. However, to my surprise, most of these contacts did not manifest deep concern with the threats I had described.

In the column, I supposed that nuclear and hydropower facilities could be damaged by missiles or shelling occasionally: it was hard to imagine that a Russian occupying army would try to attack these facilities by design, especially if one takes into account Russia’s deep expertise in nuclear power technologies and experience in dealing with atomic accidents. But it seems I was too optimistic. When the Kremlin realized that it was failing to break Ukraine’s defenses quickly, it started targeting civil and critical infrastructure, including nuclear facilities.

The Russian Army Attacks Several Ukrainian Nuclear Facilities

So, what has happened?

1. On February 24, Russian invading forces seized control of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant (NPP) and all its facilities, including facilities used to store spent nuclear fuel, located eighty miles from Ukraine’s capital. The next day a monitoring system detected a spike in gamma radiation in the area of the Chernobyl NPP, caused by the movement of heavy military vehicles and other equipment over polluted soils. Russians are holding Ukrainian personnel hostage, preventing a shift change: NPP specialists remain at their workstations without being afforded necessary rest, which may affect the NPP’s efficiency and safety. As of now, contact with monitoring systems at Chernobyl has been lost.

According to Ukrainian official sources, the Russian forces threatened to blow up some facilities during the takeover of Chernobyl. Earlier, the Russians had filmed a fake video purporting to show the National Guard of Ukraine unit assigned to protect the facility giving up and starting patrols of the Chernobyl zone together with the Russians.

2. On February 26, a Russian missile hit a low-level radioactive waste disposal site in Kharkiv, and on February 27, a Russian missile hit a radioactive waste disposal site in Kyiv, which was followed by a fire at the facility. Luckily, no radioactive pollution happened.

3. On March 3, Russian forces started firing on the city of Energodar, where the Zaporizhzhia NPP is located, the biggest nuclear plant in Europe. Later the NPP itself came under attack, in the course of which a fire broke out at the power plant. One of six reactors was damaged during the Russian takeover of the NPP. This did not result in radioactive pollution of the environment, however.

4. On March 6, during the intense bombing and shelling of Kharkiv, the Grad research nuclear facility was hit.

5. On March 9, Russians cut the power supply to the Chernobyl NPP. If not repaired, this may result in a nuclear accident within a few days.

With these events, the whole world saw that the invading Russian forces were attacking nuclear facilities, with an extreme risk of releasing damaging radioactive pollution or even causing nuclear accidents, and threatening to blow up the plants. It is impossible not to agree with the statement of President Volodymyr Zelensky and Ukrainian officials that Russia is carrying out acts of nuclear terrorism. More frightening is that the attacks on nuclear facilities are being carried out not by some terrorist group but by a state holding nuclear weapons.

Weak International Reaction: Why Is There Nothing beyond “Grave Concern”?

From the very beginning, Ukraine devoted a lot of diplomatic effort to contain Russia’s threat to nuclear safety in Ukraine by legal means, but without much success.

The world appears reluctant to take a clear-eyed view of the risks posed by the deliberate targeting of Ukraine’s nuclear facilities. The international reaction to Russian forces seizing the Chernobyl NPP was extremely weak. The attack on the Zaporizhzhia NPP elicited a stronger reaction. However, it was not followed by any practical proposals or efforts to stop Russian nuclear recklessness from threatening Europe and the whole world. So far we hear only appeals from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) “to refrain from any military or other action that could threaten the safety and security” of facilities with radioactive materials, or, a few days later, from the same agency, that “any military or other action that could threaten the safety or security of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants must be avoided.” The director general of the IAEA stressed that he was “gravely concerned” about the situation.

This kind of reaction is bizarre. The Russian army’s actions violate not only common sense but also the fundamental principles of the peaceful use of atomic energy, which in Ukraine is used to generate electricity. The IAEA’s General Conference resolution of 2009 states that “any armed attack on and threat against nuclear facilities devoted to peaceful purposes constitutes a violation of the principles of the United Nations Charter, international law and the Statute of the Agency.”

Finally, on March 8, the chair of Ukraine’s nuclear regulator said that the IAEA had not succeeded in demilitarizing the Ukrainian NPPs taken over by Russian troops. We hear only expressions of deep concern, which will do nothing to prevent radioactive accidents in this war.

International Preventive Measures Are Needed Immediately

Russia’s war on Ukraine must be stopped now. The Kremlin’s attempts to blackmail Ukraine, Europe, and the whole world with nuclear terrorism must be stopped in the name of nuclear safety and peace. And the international community has more than enough leverage to do so.

Ukraine has already called on the IAEA, the OSCE, the European Commission, and the UN to establish control over Ukrainian nuclear facilities. The right decision would be to send international IAEA inspectors and peacekeepers to Ukrainian NPPs to investigate and protect the facilities and staff.

Also, the Ukrainian army needs more military equipment to safeguard nuclear infrastructure around Ukraine.

The nations of the world must bring more pressure to bear on Russia to stop the Kremlin’s attacks on nuclear facilities in Ukraine. The civilized world must do everything to stop the Russian Federation’s acts of nuclear terrorism—for Ukraine’s and the world’s own sake.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the authors and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Andrian Prokip

Andrian Prokip

Senior Associate, Ukraine;
Director, Energy Program, Ukrainian Institute for the Future
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more