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Saturday, 01 October 2022
Nuclear Chicken 
James Denselow

The reverberations from the war in Ukraine have primarily taken the form of fuelling the global food crisis, however that is not the only issue that may cross far and beyond the country’s borders. At the start of the fighting there was concern that Russia’s putting their nuclear forces on high alert could lead to a nuclear exchange, thankfully these fears have diminished but are now replaced with the UN Secretary General António Guterres warning of the “very real risk of a nuclear disaster” following events at Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.

The plant, Europe’s largest, is situated at a strategic location and is still partially operational, being responsible for powering some 4 million homes in Ukraine prior to the February invasion. Russian forces took the plant early in the fighting and now stands accused of firing from the facility and sheltering military assets in the area thinking that Ukrainian forces wouldn’t risk targeting them. Last Friday saw shelling of a high-voltage power line at the nuclear facility which prompted operators to disconnect a reactor, despite no radioactive leak being detected.

Indeed, as Guterres warned “any attack to a nuclear plant is a suicidal thing”. Yet the Russians did attack and seize the site in March, damaging facilities and wounding civilians in the process. The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has accused the Russians of using the plant as a “nuclear shield”. The US is continuing to monitor the situation at the facility and radiation sensors have "thankfully" not shown any indications of an increase or abnormal radiation levels according to officials. The EU's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell condemned events around the plant as "a serious and irresponsible breach of nuclear safety rules and another example of Russia’s disregard for international norms".

So how much risk are we really looking at in this process of “nuclear chicken” where both sides seem to be refusing to blink first? For years, security services have worried about terrorists unleashing a ‘dirty bomb’ – where a conventional explosive is used to spread radioactive material over a large area. Whilst the reinforced nature of the reactors mean they can withstand a significant amount, direct targeting with military grade weaponry could replicate a modern day Chernobyl.

More likely would be accidental strikes on less well protected parts of the site that store nuclear waste. This is the ‘dirty bomb’ scenario that if realised could see large parts of the vicinity contaminated and made unlivable. The most likely dangerous scenario is far less dramatic and would see the inability of the site to be properly maintained leading to an accident that could have consequences lasting for generations.

Petro Kotin, the head of Ukraine’s state nuclear power company Enerhoatom, told the BBC the workers are under pressure and in danger, and some had been captured, beaten and tortured. Indeed, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Mariano Grossi, described the ongoing crisis of safety oversight as a dire threat to public health and the environment in Ukraine, and far beyond its borders, describing the situation as “completely out of control.”

Control is what is needed most and the early positive signs coming from the deal reached to allow grain out from the Black Sea could serve as a stepping stone for a nuclear deal. Nuclear power plants and there surrounding areas most urgently become demilitarised zones with commitments not to target them or station troops in their vicinity. Materials and the staff needed to operate the plants need to have full and unimpeded access. All of these policies need to be overseen by independent UN experts and hopefully can add to the wider avenues for dialogue between the two sides rather than an apocalyptic race to the bottom.  

However, a serious spanner in the works of such a scenario becoming a reality is the talk from the Russian backed administration of that occupied part of Ukraine having a referendum on “reunifying” with Russia in the autumn. This would place the nuclear plant on a geopolitical fault line that is far harder to bridge meaning that “nuclear chicken” may become the new normal.

BY: James Denselow