Nuclear safety is another casualty of the Ukraine war

Experts say power cuts at Zaporizhzhia, Europe's biggest nuclear plant, are dangerous. It's another reason why efforts to end the conflict should be redoubled

Surveillance camera footage from Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant published on YouTube shows a flare landing at the site during shelling on March 4 last year. EPA
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When US president George W Bush and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin signed the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, better known as the Moscow Treaty, on this day 21 years ago, the hope was that it would be another step towards reducing the risk of the superpowers ever fighting a nuclear war.

Mercifully, such a conflict has not taken place, thanks in part to the high-level diplomacy that led to the 2002 treaty. It committed Russia and the US to cutting their strategic nuclear arsenal to between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads each. But it also formed part of a series of arms control treaties that kept an uneasy global peace – at least when it came to the use of weapons of mass destruction.

Despite these international treaties, with nuclear energy – whether in the form of weapons or civilian nuclear power plants caught in the crossfire of a conventional conflict – the consequences of a miscalculation are too enormous to contemplate. This is why the current fighting in Ukraine is perilous not only to its long-suffering population but also for the international community. It is also another reason why efforts to end the war should be redoubled.

This urgency was underscored on Monday morning, when the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in south-eastern Ukraine lost all external power for several hours. The incident, said Rafael Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, underlined “the extremely precarious nuclear safety and security situation at the facility and the urgent need to protect it and prevent an accident”.

Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, which was seized by Russian forces days into the current conflict, has lost power seven times since the war began 15 months ago, the IAEA says. Nuclear power plants require energy to keep their reactors cool and to carry out other security and safety functions. Jeopardising the power supply to such a critical piece of infrastructure carries tremendous risks. Ukraine knows this better than most countries, given that it and its neighbours are still living with the after-effects of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

Amid reports of an imminent Ukrainian counter-offensive, observers will be watching the country’s nuclear infrastructure closely, hoping that the fighting does not lead to a catastrophe that would be difficult to contain in peacetime, let along during a war.

Wars are unpredictable events, and the possibility that a change on the battlefield could lead to a nuclear accident or the misguided use of a nuclear device is one that should be first and foremost in the minds of the international community. At the end of March, Izumi Nakamitsu, the UN’s undersecretary general and high representative for disarmament affairs, told the Security Council that the risk of nuclear arms being used is higher today than at any time since the end of the Cold War.

“The absence of dialogue and the erosion of the disarmament and arms control architecture, combined with dangerous rhetoric and veiled threats, are key drivers of this potentially existential risk,” she added. In February this year, Mr Putin said his government had suspended its participation in another arms control agreement with the US – the New START treaty.

There is always the risk of the world falling into complacency about a long-running conflict, and no one wants to speculate on or talk up a potential catastrophe, but no effort should be spared in trying to end the war. In the meantime, it is important for the international community and nuclear agencies to remain engaged with both sides in this conflict to mitigate the risk of a disaster that would threaten not only Ukraine’s people but the lives of millions across the European continent.

Published: May 24, 2023, 3:00 AM