Ukrainian premier Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Sunday (14 August 2022) that his military would continue to target Russian forces concentrated in and around the Zaporozhye nuclear plant in southern Ukraine, ending weeks of Ukrainian claims that it was Russian forces which were shelling the installation. Ukrainian units on the west bank of the Dnieper in the south of the Dnipropetrovsk oblast have been continually shelling the nuclear power plant (NPP) at Zaporozhye since 16 July, giving Russian personnel and equipment in the vicinity of the plant ‘special target’ status — and this is an extremely dangerous situation that should cause a great deal of alarm.
The Zaporozhye NPP is the largest such power plant on the European continent and the tenth largest in the world. It has six pressurised light water reactors which require round-the-clock maintenance and cooling to avert a meltdown and a nuclear catastrophe many times greater than the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. With its six Soviet-designed uranium 235 reactors, the Zaporozhye NPP produces over half of Ukraine’s nuclear power. So, the risks involved in this facility coming under heavy and sustained artillery bombardment really should not require too much explanation — yet, NATO, the United States, the European Union, and Britain have given tacit approval to the Kiev regime to continue its assault on the plant.
Rafael Mariano Grossi, the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (the IAEA), the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, has described this as an ‘alarming situation’ and has called for an immediate cessation of the fighting around the plant (11 August 2022). ‘Any military action jeopardising nuclear safety, nuclear security, must stop immediately,’ he said. ‘Military actions near such a large nuclear facility could lead to very serious consequences’ — serious consequences Zelenskyy is willing to ignore in order to remove the Russian forces that have occupied this area on the east bank of the Dnieper in the Zaporozhye oblast since 3 March.
Until Zelenskyy accepted responsibility for the shelling of the plant, his regime was engaged in a disinformation campaign blaming Russia for the attack. Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior advisor to the Kiev government, accused the Russian military of firing on the plant in order to destroy it and so disconnect the whole of southern Ukraine and blame the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Ukraine’s Energy Minister, German Galushchenko, also insisted Russia had attacked the plant, stating that Russia had ‘violated all international conventions and resolutions’ during the occupation. Unnamed local officials told reporters from The Washington Post that they believed the Russian forces were likely to perpetrate a ‘false flag’ operation on the plant, and Dmytro Orlov, the mayor of Enerhodar, claimed to have heard local reports that the Russians had placed a self-propelled artillery gun with a Ukrainian flag in the city. All of these reports were, as we now know, entirely false.
Video footage of Russian soldiers inside the Zaporozhye NPP has been released, giving western and Ukrainian officials grounds to assert the Russians are using the plant as a shield for their troops and a base from which to mount artillery attacks on the Ukrainian-held town of Nikopol’. However, none of the video evidence has shown artillery at the site. Sabotage is a real danger to the security of the plant, and so it stands to reason the Russian Army would have a military presence in and around the plant. Here in Ireland, the Irish Defence Forces were placed on guard at power stations during the Troubles to defend them from paramilitaries. It is not unreasonable to deploy soldiers to protect power stations — especially nuclear power stations — during an active conflict.
Naturally, the United States has used this worsening situation, ignoring the outright lies of the Ukrainian government, to further criminalise Russia. Bonnie Jenkins, US undersecretary for arms control and international affairs, said at the UN that Russia bears full responsibility for the ‘nuclear risks’ at the Zaporozhye NPP; further cementing a western narrative on the war that has little basis in fact. While backing Kiev’s calls for a demilitarised zone around the NPP, she told the Security Council that ‘the many consequences of this conflict, including the situation at the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant, will only end when Russia ends its war.’ It is worth noting here that the US has not criticised Ukraine for shelling the power plant and has actively discouraged a ceasefire and peace talks.
On 14 August, the European Union, issued a joint statement highlighting the seriousness of the situation at the Zaporozhye NPP which managed, in itself, to become a partisan document; prioritising the apportioning of blame to the Russian Federation over and above the urgent need to secure the integrity of the plant. The statement begins: ‘The Russian Federation’s unprovoked and unjustified war of aggression against Ukraine, a sovereign country, is a gross violation of international law…’ What does it matter who started the conflict when the consequences of a nuclear meltdown are so terrible for everyone? ‘Unprovoked and unjustified?’ Why a particular and incorrect partisan narrative should take precedence over a clear call on all sides to stop fighting in the area of the NPP beggars belief and ultimately undermines the desired authority of the statement.
No one — not even the Russians — denies the fact that ‘the presence of Russian military forces at the Zaporozhye Nuclear Power Plant prevents the operator and the Ukrainian authorities from fulfilling their nuclear and radiation safety obligations in accordance with international conventions.’ Russia’s ‘special military operation’ has changed the facts on the ground; Zaporozhye is no longer in Ukrainian control. Regardless of opinion in Ukraine, in the EU, or in the United States, these obligations are no longer — for the time being — Ukraine’s to fulfil. Zaporozhye is Russian controlled territory, and so these nuclear and radiation safety obligations are Russia’s — and it is, as President Zelenskyy has conceded, the Ukrainian military that is preventing ‘the operator’ and the Russian authorities from fulfilling these important obligations.
The joint statement asserts that ‘it is undeniable that Russia’s invasion and its continued presence at Ukraine’s nuclear facilities significantly raise the risk of nuclear incidents and accidents.’ Yet, in light of the facts, this is not true. For sure, the war has increased the risk of accidents at the plant. This much is undeniable. But the Russian authorities have continued the operation of the power station and have brought in their own experts to ensure its proper maintenance. In spite of the elevated risks due to the ongoing conflict, the Russian nuclear authorities have been operating the Zaporozhye NPP safely since the beginning of March. The only added threat to the security of the plant is from, as Zelenskyy has said, the targeting of Russian forces at the site by the Ukrainian military — and it was Moscow that brought this to the attention of the UN Security Council while the Kiev regime was still sticking to the contradictory lines that (i.) it was the Russians who were attacking the plant (which they possessed) and (ii.) that the Kremlin was planning to stage a ‘false flag’ operation at the NPP in order, in effect, to use a meltdown of the plant as a ‘dirty bomb.’
It is an undeniable fact that Ukrainian forces are responsible for the artillery bombardment of the Zaporozhye NPP, and there are two reasons for this; one ideological and the other practical. The prevailing ideology of the Ukrainian forces on the southern front is, as has been well-documented even in the western media, National Socialist — or Nazi — in nature; a profoundly nihilistic and apocalyptic brand of palingenetic ultranationalism. This hellish ideology, as the world witnessed in the last days of the Third Reich, will stop at nothing — not even a nuclear holocaust — to achieve its perverse fantasy of final victory. Ukraine’s ideological Nazis, who have far more influence than Kiev’s western backers are now comfortable to admit, are less interested in ‘nuclear blackmail’ than they are in driving the Russian ‘orcs’ or ‘Judeo-Bolsheviks’ from their ‘Motherland.’
The more practical reason is the threat of Russia annexing the territory of Zaporozhye and redirecting the energy produced at the NNP to southern Ukraine and Crimea. Kiev’s awareness of this likelihood also gives the lie to the claim that it is Russian forces shelling the installation. Olga Kosharna, a nuclear expert and former board member of Ukraine’s nuclear regulatory inspectorate, has noted that it is in Russia’s interests to keep the Zaporozhye NPP intact and connect it to the Crimean power grid. The Russian nuclear energy company Rosatom has acknowledged that, while not taking over the running of the plant, it has employees and officials at the site; substantiating the assumption that Moscow does plan to connect the plant to the Russian grid. ‘It’s encouraging to see that the Russians want to use the electricity,’ said Michael Black, the director of the Centre of Nuclear Engineering at Imperial College London, because this implies that the Russians don’t want to damage the power plant. Ukraine is shelling the Zaporozhye plant in a high-stakes gamble designed to blackmail Russia into surrendering the region, and it is doing this with the blessing of NATO, the EU, the US, and Britain — and this is what makes the situation especially dangerous.
The IAEA has issued an urgent warning stating that unless the fighting stops there is an immediate possibility of a nuclear disaster. While the reactors’ concrete walls are built to withstand significant impacts, they are not designed to survive artillery bombardment and aerial bombing. Any disruption to the supply of water — which is also at risk — will result in the loss of the plant’s ability to cool the reactors, causing the fuel to start melting. This will lead to a rapid build-up of pressure and an explosion. Such an explosion would release and spread dangerous radioactive material into the surrounding environment. Commenting on this possible outcome, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said:
We must be clear that any potential damage to Zaporozhye or any other nuclear facilities in Ukraine, or anywhere else, could lead to catastrophic consequences not only for the immediate vicinity, but for the region and beyond.
‘Immediate vicinity,’ here is rather significant given the wider consequences of the conflict. The Zaporozhye oblast is the most productive cereal farmland in Ukraine; making it quite actually the breadbasket of Europe. War in Ukraine has already limited the global wheat supply, contributing massively to food insecurity in some of the poorest countries. It goes entirely without saying that a Chernobyl-like nuclear disaster at the Zaporozhye NPP — putting much of this land out of use for at least twenty-thousand years — would have a devastating effect on millions of people and have a catastrophic impact on the global economy.
Without denying the right of Ukraine to defend its territory, the Zaporozhye NPP is of no immediate strategic benefit to the Kiev regime. It is situated on the west bank of the Dnieper 120km north of the frontline bridge at Nova Kakhovka and 110km south of the frontline at Khortytsya; meaning Ukrainian forces have no hope of holding the Zaporozhye NPP even if they took it. They are shelling the plant for ideological reasons and to stop Russia using it. This might make sense if it were any other kind of power plant, but this is a nuclear power plant — a meltdown or an explosion here would have an unfathomable impact on all of us. Throughout August and September the prevailing winds over the steppe are steady and easterly, which would drive a radioactive cloud and fallout (of a significantly greater volume than that produced by Chernobyl in 1986) west across the European continent — reaching Britain, Ireland, France, and Portugal.
Washington may see this as acceptable collateral damage in its plan to destabilise the Russian Federation, but this is a price Europe cannot afford to pay. The situation is already perilous, and every effort must be made to halt the Ukrainian shelling of the site.
Jason Michael McCann, M.Phil. (TCD) Conflict Studies The author holds a postgraduate degree in Race, Ethnicity and Conflict from the University of Dublin, Trinity College, and an academic fellowship in the study of conflict from the University of West Flanders. He has published on the history of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp and the murder of the Hungarian Jews in 1944.
Melimopoulos, Elizabeth. “What Happens If Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Plant Explodes?” Al Jazeera, August 11, 2022. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/8/11/what-happens-if-ukraines-zaporizhzhia-nuclear-plant-explodes.
Morris, Loveday, Ievgeniia Sivorka, and John Hudson. “Inside Ukraine’s Captured Nuclear Plant, Explosions and Constant Fear.” The Washington Post, August 15, 2022. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/08/15/ukraine-zaporizhzhia-nuclear-plant-attacks/.
Roth, Richard, and Jonny Hallam. “Ukrainian Nuclear Plant Facing ‘grave Hour,’ UN Watchdog Says.” CNN, August 12, 2022. https://edition.cnn.com/2022/08/12/europe/ukraine-zaporizhzhia-nuclear-plant-un-warning-intl-hnk/index.html.
Sabbagh, Dan. “Ukraine Issues Warning to Russian Soldiers at Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant.” The Guardian, August 14, 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/aug/14/ukraine-says-it-will-target-russian-soldiers-at-zaporizhzhia-nuclear-power-plant.
EEAS Website. “Ukraine-Joint Statement on the Situation at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant,” August 14, 2022. https://www.eeas.europa.eu/delegations/vienna-international-organisations/ukraine-joint-statement-situation-zaporizhzhia_en?s=66.