One of the most worrying and unprecedented exigencies created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the fate of Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest. Occupied by Russian troops on March 4, the power plant is the repository of an enormous amount of radioactive material, contained in six nuclear reactor cores, spent fuel pools, and dry cask storage. The plant is also the workplace for some 11,000 people. Since taking over, Russia has turned the plant into a military base and used it as a pawn in its war with Ukraine and psychological war with the West.
In August, there was a new spur of escalation around the plant, with shelling that damaged plant facilities and resulted in repeated disconnections from Ukraine’s electrical grid. While perpetrators and purposes of the shelling remained difficult to ascertain, with each side blaming the other, the course of ensuing developments has been consistent with the reported Russian plan to disconnect the plant from the Ukrainian power grid and connect it to the Russian-controlled system. The ultimate plan might be to steal the plant from Ukraine, not cause a major accident, but the militarization and shelling endangered the operation of critical cooling systems that prevent the core and spent fuel pools from overheating and causing a nuclear accident.
The attention of the international media and nuclear security experts has been glued to the technical aspects of nuclear safety, the loss of off-site power, and the functioning of backup generators. Meanwhile another drama — human — has been unfolding at the plant and in its satellite city of Enerhodar, also occupied by the Russians, where most of the plant’s employees and their families live. No matter how reliable the backup safety systems, nuclear power plants are operated by humans and the humans at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant have been doing their already demanding jobs under immense physical and psychological duress.
Many nuclear operators have evacuated their families from Enerhodar but stayed to carry out their duties at the plant. All the while, reports of pressure, threats, weeks-long disappearances, and restriction of movements about the plant abounded. On Oct. 1, Ihor Murashov, the general director of the power plant, was abducted by the Russian military and was released two days later on Ukrainian-controlled territory. Since then, the deputy director and two senior managers have been abducted. Their whereabouts are still unknown.
While the Russian occupiers — the military and Russia’s nuclear operator Rosatom — are replacing the Ukrainian management of the plant with bosses loyal to Moscow, they will struggle to replace the entire staff, for at least two reasons. First, there are too many people to replace. The effort would involve finding thousands of nuclear engineers in Russia and convincing them to move to a war zone. Second, even though the Zaporizhzhia plant is Soviet-built and operates Russian VVER-1000 nuclear reactors, for decades it has been a declared facility with the International Atomic Energy Agency and under its safeguards. The IAEA, European partners, and the US Department of Energy have worked to make multiple safety and security upgrades at the plant, introducing technologies, processes, and procedures Russian nuclear operators are unfamiliar with.
Since the illegal annexation of occupied territories by Russia at the end of September, Ukrainian workers at Zaporizhzhia are under pressure to sign contracts with Rosatom and opt for Russian passports — which would also qualify them to be drafted into Russian armed forces to fight their compatriots. Thousands of Ukrainian nuclear engineers and staff at the plant face a stark choice: evacuate to a safer place, leaving their plant’s safety systems in uncertain hands, or continue to suffer the indignities and perils of working under a hostile foreign rule.
The ability of a nuclear power plant’s staff to fulfill their safety and security duties and make decisions free of undue pressure is one of the seven nuclear security pillars outlined by IAEA director general Rafael Grossi on March 4 — the very day Russian troops marched into the Ukrainian plant. The IAEA and Grossi led a historic mission to the plant in late August.
One of the outcomes of the mission was the IAEA’s call for the establishment of a “nuclear safety and security protection zone” around the plant, essentially demilitarizing it. As necessary as such a zone would be, it remains no more than a noble idea. Instituting, implementing, and enforcing such a protection zone would doubtless require an international peacekeeping force, the authorization for which is granted only by the decision of the United Nations Security Council. The very Security Council on which Russia, the aggressor and the serial violator of the UN Charter, wields a veto.
And so the Ukrainian staff at the power plant continues to labor daily, keeping their plant and Europe safe, trapped in their homes and workplace not only by the Russian occupiers but by the antiquated international power structure that is ill-equipped to respond to the unprecedented new challenges of the day.
If something’s got to give, let it not be the safety of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant.
Mariana Budjeryn is a senior research associate with the Project on Managing the Atom at the Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center. Her book “Inheriting the Bomb: The Collapse of the USSR and the Nuclear Disarmament of Ukraine” will be published later this year.