CNIC Statement: Safety of Nuclear Power is Under Threat One Year after the Attack on the Zaporizhzhia NPP

March 4, 2023

A year has already passed since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. An extremely severe humanitarian crisis is still ongoing. Russia should immediately withdraw from Ukraine.

This war marks the first time in history that a commercial nuclear power plant (NPP) has been attacked while in operation. One year ago today, the Russian military attacked the Zaporizhzhia NPP (VVER-1000, six units), which is Europe’s largest. Since then until the present time, Russia’s military has occupied the plant. Fortunately, no serious accidents have occurred, but since then the plant has been attacked repeatedly, cut off from the transmission network and so on, and is continuing to face critical situations. Recently, the water level in the reservoir that supplies water to the cooling pond at the Zaporizhzhia NPP has fallen and is becoming a problem, because if the water level falls too low, it will not be able to supply water to the cooling pond. The number of workers at the plant prior to its occupation was about 10,000, but as of January 2023, it had declined drastically to around 3,000 people. Also, Russia has been proceeding with work to transform the NPP into a military base.

Four of its six nuclear reactors  (units 1 to 4) are in cold shutdown, while the other two (units 5 and 6) are said to be in hot shut down*. Ukraine’s nuclear power regulation authorities announced in February that they will not authorize operation of the Zaporizhzhia NPP until Russia’s occupation of the plant ends and its safety can be assured.

The Geneva Convention on Wartime International Law, which Russia has also ratified, prohibits attacks on nuclear power plants, with some exceptions. However, this time, Russia attacked an NPP. A report released at the end of November 2022 by the Royal Institute of Defence and Security (RUSI) provided an analysis that showed Russia to have been aiming to occupy the NPP from prior to its invasion. The IAEA has called for the area around the plant to be made a safety zone and has been in talks with both Ukraine and Russia about it, but negotiations are said to facing obstacles. Even if such negotiations are concluded, there is the issue of who will maintain the safety zone.

Lessons to learn

Until now, it has only been non-state actors such as terrorists that have been considered as possibly attacking NPPs. In reality, however, most attacks on NPPs and nuclear power facilities have been by state actors (see table below). We should realize that such attacks are going to occur in the future as well.

Attacks on NPPs pose an enormous danger. In a worst case scenario, large amounts of radioactive materials would be released into the environment. In addition, accident response efforts would be hindered terribly in the midst of a battle or under occupation. Prolongation of the war would also be a problem, as it would make providing fuel and the necessary parts for repairs difficult. If power transmission network lines to the NPP are severed, such as in a battle, cooling the reactors also becomes problematic. Another big risk is stress among the workers at the NPP due to prolonged occupation.

Japan’s government says its NPPs will be heavily guarded. Defending an NPP, however, is not merely a matter of not allowing it to be occupied; safety must be maintained while defending it. In addition it would be necessary to evacuate the residents. Would evacuation really be possible? Also, if nuclear damage occurred as the result of an attack, there is the problem of who would pay compensation. In times of war, business operators are released from responsibility. Meanwhile, the government is only saying that it will take the necessary measures. In other words, this means that nobody is going to provide compensation for any damages.

The electric power supply is also a problem. Even while it was under attack, the Zaporizhzhia NPP continued to generate electricity, and maintained it even for quite a while under occupation because of concerns over electric outages that would result from shutting down the NPP. Japan also has a number of NPPs that include more than one nuclear reactor. If NPPs such as these were attacked or occupied, we wonder what would happen to the power supply.

It’s not just NPPs either. Japan is constructing a reprocessing plant in Rokkasho Village, Aomori Prefecture, that will separate out plutonium from spent nuclear fuel. Large amounts of spent fuel, high-level radioactive waste and other dangerous substances have been amassed at the plant already. The Geneva Conventions do not prohibit attacks on nuclear-related facilities such as reprocessing plants, but the danger there is even greater than at NPPs. Because plutonium can be diverted to nuclear weaponry, it is entirely possible that a hostile nation might suspect nuclear weapon development and target such facilities for attack, and if a foreign country or terrorists were to occupy them, they could make off with the separated plutonium. That could lead to further nuclear proliferation, a global concern.

The Kishida administration has been pushing for the use of NPPs in the name of decarbonization. However, the use of nuclear power, where safety is the highest priority, is incompatible with national security. Abandoning nuclear power generation is the best way to eliminate concerns about national security over the use of nuclear power.

*Hot shutdown is the state in which a nuclear reactor is in a subcritical state but the temperature of the coolant exceeds the boiling point due to heat released by decaying radioisotopes.

Major attacks on NPPs or nuclear power facilities.

1980Osirak nuclear reactor, IraqBombingIsrael
1981Osirak nuclear reactor, IraqBombingIsrael
1984-87Bushehr NPP, IranBombingIraq
1991/1993Tuwaik nuclear facility, IraqBombing and otherUS
2007Al Kibar nuclear reactor, SyriaBombingIsrael
2008~10Natanz nuclear facility, IranCyber attackUS & Israel?
2014Dimona nuclear reactor, IsraelMissileHamas(non-state actor)
2020Natanz nuclear facility, IranBombingIsrael?
2021Natanz nuclear facility, IranBombingIsrael?
2022NPP and other, UkraineAttack & occupationRussia
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

You may also like...