Nearly four decades after the Chernobyl disaster, few words garner the world’s attention like “Ukraine” and “nuclear,” so it is easy to see how the Russian assault on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant (ZNPP) on Thursday night shocked observers. The nuclear dimension of this war has been prominent from the beginning. First Russian President Vladimir Putin made the outlandish and false allegation that Ukraine was seeking nuclear weapons, after it had in fact returned thousands of Soviet nuclear weapons to Russia in the 1990s with U.S. assistance — and in exchange for protection against Russian invasion. Then Putin threatened to use his nuclear arsenal against the West if NATO powers intervened in Ukraine — a danger already on the mind of President Biden, who made clear from the beginning that the United States would not send troops into the conflict for fear that it could lead to nuclear war. Just days into the war, Russian forces also fought to capture the still-contaminated Chernobyl site.
By Friday morning, the fighting at Zaporizhzhia had stopped; fires were apparently under control, though Russian forces reportedly shot at firefighters the night before, and officials indicated that there was no radiation leak after the plant was shelled. But the fact that Russia would put all of Ukraine, the world and their own citizens — who would be downwind of any radioactive release from a Ukrainian power plant — at risk shows just how out of control this conflict can easily spin, with no warning.
The plant captured Thursday night is quite different from the world’s most notorious Ukrainian nuclear plant, at Chernobyl. The Chernobyl RBMK and Zaporizhzhia VVER reactors have very different designs and safety features, and the ZNPP is newer. Unlike Chernobyl, the ZNPP has a large cement containment building around the reactor. This means any foreseeable radiation event — such as one caused by a power spike or the failure of a fuel element — can be held inside the plant itself. The reactor was designed in a way that when it loses power, it shuts down into a safe state that stops producing new nuclear reactions. When the Chernobyl plant burned in April 1986, it continued to produce massive amounts of radiation and contamination because the fuel was still splitting atoms, even as the graphite in the plant spewed nuclear material into the atmosphere.
The ZNPP also has multiple backup power supplies which, if in operation, can help protect the plant’s nuclear fuel from melting and escaping the containment from below. The meltdown at the plant in Fukushima, Japan, after a 2011 earthquake and tsunami (a similar design to the ZNPP) happened because the backup generators and connections to the power grid were lost when the tsunami swamped the entire region. Unless the Ukrainian plant is attacked or cut off from the local grid — which, unfortunately, we cannot rule out while the war rages — the ZNPP should have power to operate its cooling systems for the fuel, preventing a disaster. Ensuring that generators at the site are operating and refueled is essential no matter which country’s government controls it.
There remain many unknowns about the condition of the plant, and only the Ukrainian operators gaining full and safe access to the plant will give us a sense of the situation on the ground. The plant remains under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards, and the IAEA should also be given access to assist with any safety needs if Ukraine requests help.
But even without immediate danger of a catastrophe, there is no good way to interpret the assault on the nuclear plant. Either Russian leaders ordered the attack, which would indicate a level of recklessness and brinkmanship that we had not anticipated, or Russian troops on the ground fired on the plant without orders — or even possibly in contravention of them. Russia may be seeking to control or eliminate all critical infrastructure in Ukraine, as part of its plans to occupy and dominate (if not outright annex) the country. It is doubtful Russian forces were ordered to damage the plant, so instead they probably fired on the site as part of a plan to secure the facility. That raises concerns for the three other sites with nine other nuclear reactors operating in Ukraine and whether Russia might take military action near them, as well.
A scenario in which Russian troops attacked the site without orders is almost more worrisome than if they were ordered to take the plant by force. During the 20th century, the United States and the Soviet Union relied on cooler heads and well-trained troops who understood the risks of superpower confrontation to keep the Cold War from turning hot, no matter how fierce proxy wars got. So far in this invasion of Ukraine, the vaunted Russian military has underperformed, and Putin’s reputation as a three-dimensional chess master has taken a beating. The risks of the conflict intentionally or accidentally spinning out of control with unpredictable consequences grow every day. And it no longer seems certain that Russian forces are able or willing to keep things from spiraling into disaster.
Whether Putin feels more pressure at home or not, the longer the war lasts, the more the Ukrainian people will suffer and the greater the chances that the war in Ukraine could grow out of control, leading to unintended escalation. In some ways, Russia has anticipated this: It is plausible that Russian troops seized the Chernobyl plant because it could be used to create a radiological event by insurgents as part of a long campaign to bleed Russia should the occupation stretch out. Perhaps in Putin’s mind, he needed to seize Ukraine’s nuclear assets to back up his narrative that Ukraine was pursuing nuclear weapons. This obvious fabrication is exposed by the fact that the IAEA has all of Ukraine’s nuclear facilities and materials under inspection and has detected no indications of any interest in a military nuclear program. Nevertheless, Thursday night’s attack showed that Russia is now prepared to pursue — or is incapable of preventing — tactical actions that can get out of control and have strategic implications that neither Putin nor Biden or any world leader can fully anticipate.
Forcing Putin to end his illegal invasion quickly remains the best way to prevent disaster. The West will most likely continue considering further steps to try to force Putin to withdraw, including a full oil embargo or even more severe economic cutoff. But that brings its own dangers. How far into a corner are the United States and its allies prepared to push Putin, and what other forms of restraint might he abandon in response? If he is at the brink of collapse, will he try to draw NATO into the fight to raise the stakes and make the conflict more of a patriotic battle at home? The more reckless Russia’s actions become, the greater the likelihood that both sides start to see the war as one for Putin’s survival as Russia’s leader. And that would truly open up a level of risk not seen since the worst days of the Cold War.
That both the United States and Russia have nuclear weapons, and that both continue to reserve the right to use them first in a conflict, gives the entire situation a nuclear component that demands we get every decision right. Otherwise, it might lead to an even greater nuclear disaster than a failed nuclear power plant ever could.