Anastasiya Ringis is a Ukrainian journalist temporarily based in Ottawa.
On April 26, 1986, the fourth reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic exploded, releasing a radioactive cloud and toxic isotopes into the sky.
It took an entire week for the Politburo in Moscow to evacuate Ukrainians within a 30-kilometre range of the disaster site. People in Kyiv, just 130 kilometres away from the plant, even attended the Communist Party’s May Day rally days after the explosion, unaware of the threat. And when the Ukraine SSR’s leaders finally announced evacuation plans after days of government denials, it sparked the resentment and anger that remains at the heart of today’s Ukrainian independence movement.
Inexplicably, history is repeating itself 36 years later. On March 4, Russians captured the city of Enerhodar, home to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant – the largest one in Europe, generating up to 20 per cent of Ukraine’s electricity. Ever since, the Russians have been working to cut off this essential facility from Ukraine’s grid, and Ukrainian intelligence suggested that Moscow plans to reroute its output to Crimea. They have also effectively kidnapped Ukrainian personnel to keep the plant running on behalf of the occupiers.
In September, monitors from the International Atomic Energy Agency were finally able to reach Enerhodar. Despite significant restrictions by the Russians, the experts were able to report that the Zaporizhzhia plant was full of military personnel and vehicles, aligning with claims by Ukrainian officials – including the president of Energoatom, Ukraine’s nuclear energy agency – that Russians have turned the plant into a military base. Rafael Grossi, the IAEA’s director general, also reported that Russia had violated nearly all of the seven pillars of nuclear security.
Now, after a period of relative calm, the IAEA said this past weekend that renewed shelling near the plant now requires “urgent measures to help prevent a nuclear accident.”
The Zaporizhzhia plant is unique in that it uses both Russian and American nuclear fuel; this is because of the U.S.’s years-long efforts to free Ukraine from Russia’s fuel monopoly. Ukraine’s experiment with nuclear fuel from the U.S.-based energy firm Westinghouse was so successful and reliable that Energoatom had planned to gradually abandon Russian fuel altogether, and officially declared it would do so in March.
That was a problem for Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear energy corporation, because the 15 operating reactors in Ukraine’s four plants were its biggest foreign market. And Moscow is surely concerned that Ukraine’s escape from Russia’s monopoly could prompt the other operators of Russian reactors – in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, India and China, among others – to consider more diversity in their supply. In the context of Moscow’s desire to protect its market position by destroying data about the success of a competitor, its obsession with the Zaporizhzhia plant – with its huge caches of operational data and Westinghouse knowledge – becomes almost logical. (The Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology, which hosted a Westinghouse-sponsored data centre, has also been shelled by Russia.)
It’s clear the Russians have planned this out. They have systemically destroyed grid infrastructure linking Ukraine’s three remaining power plants with their customers. And it is telling that Sergey Kiriyenko, the first deputy chief of staff of Vladimir Putin’s administration, was appointed to oversee the annexation of Ukraine’s Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions. After serving as Russia’s youngest prime minister in 1988, Mr. Kiriyenko was in charge of Rosatom from 2005 to 2016, so he knows how to balance safety and efforts to deploy nuclear-disaster blackmail.
Because fighting had threatened the Zaporizhzhia plant’s power lines – which are necessary for providing reactor cooling and other safety measures – only one of its six reactors is now in operation there, and at a reduced output; after the IAEA’s visit, that reactor was put into cold shutdown, to reduce the risk of meltdown. But this has created a significant supply deficit for Ukrainians as the winter looms. Mr. Putin has also since signed decrees to officially announce Russia’s annexation of the Zaporizhzhia region and its takeover of its nuclear plant.
This is a clear challenge to the global nuclear industry and its security agenda. The Russian military took over a major power plant, and followed that up with an apparent act of industrial espionage – and yet the international community has not been able to do much of anything in response. Russia is still a member of the UN Security Council and the IAEA, even as it violates nuclear security pillars; Rosatom has not been sanctioned and continues its global operations, fuelling Mr. Putin’s regime with money and influence.
Despite the best efforts of the Ukrainian nuclear engineers held in Zaporizhzhia, operating under inhuman conditions, the risk of catastrophe remains as high as ever.
Editor’s note: (Nov. 21): A previous version of this story said that the IAEA reported that a huge barrage of Russian military strikes required "urgent measures to help prevent a nuclear accident.” The IAEA was referring to shelling more broadly.