As we approach 200 days of war in Ukraine, concerns over a potential nuclear catastrophe are growing. Zaporizhzhia– the largest nuclear plant in Europe- has been under Russian military occupation since 4 March 2022. Since then, both Russian and Ukrainian officials have accused each other of shelling the nuclear plant: Both have denied these allegations. Particular concern comes from Ukrainian President Zelensky’s accusations that Russian forces have used the nuclear facility to store military equipment and ammunition. The President is calling for international action to prevent any potential catastrophe resulting from this scenario.
This is not a new problem…
When Russia first took the plant in March, concerns already began brewing. While Russia had militarily taken hold of the plant, it remained operated by Ukrainian staff. This was later complemented by the Kremlin’s own nuclear experts taking on a supervisory role. Threats then came around integrating the Zaporizhzhia plant with Russia’s energy system in the case of Kiev refusing to pay for the plant’s electricity, thereby taking away the city’s energy source.
However, Ukraine overcame these threats. The nation was able to achieve synchronization with continental Europe’s electricity grid towards the end of June 2022. In 2021, the pace of this success simply seemed unattainable. Prior to the country’s conflict with Russia, this project was planned for 2023.
What is happening now?
Many nations are responding to Zelensky’s call. 42 countries released a joint statement on 12 August 2022 calling for Russia to withdraw from the Zaporizhzhia power plant. This statement was published on the EU Delegation to the International Organizations in Vienna website. The publication identified the Kremlin’s actions to be “illegal”, as well as stressed the nuclear risks associated with the military operation.
Zelensky’s administration has not, however, stayed this diplomatic. Ukraine itself has expressed intent to target Russian soldiers occupying the nuclear plant. He further stated that anyone carrying out attacks on the nuclear site, or nearby, will face prosecution by an international court due to nuclear safety concerns.
Will we avoid nuclear catastrophe?
While the international community, alongside Ukraine, have been vocal as to the nuclear dangers associated with Russia’s military operations, will this be enough? Will a simple statement be enough incentive for the Kremlin to press pause? Or, will we see the world’s second nuclear power plant implode? Ultimately, the outcome lies in diplomacy. Military intervention risks escalation, and so, diplomatic measures are the way forward. Concessions will have to be made.
Stephanie is the Assistant Editor at the Journal of Political Risk. She has a B.A. in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics and an Honours degree in Justice and Transformation from the University of Cape Town. She is currently pursuing her MPhil in Public Law, focusing on a gendered analysis of transitional justice mechanisms. She has also contributed as a member of the research team for the South African Medical Research Council, focusing on the National Health Insurance bill.