Nuclear Safety in Times of War

Photo: Oliver Geheeb

While the Western countries have intro­duced unprece­dented sanctions against Russia’s energy sector, its nuclear industry, repre­sented by the state-owned nuclear energy monop­o­list Rosatom, remains an exception in the sanction policy of the EU and G7. Despite its role in seizing the occupied Zapor­izhzhia nuclear power plant and virtually black­mailing Europe, Rosatom seems to be protected from the sanctions, as many countries are still dependent on the Russian nuclear industry.

On February 27th we discussed this issue with Anton Hofreiter, member of the German Bundestag, Victoria Voit­sitska, former Secretary of the Verkhovna Rada Energy Committee (2014–2019) and expert at the Inter­na­tional Center for the Ukrainian Victory, and Rebecca Harms, former member of the European Parlia­ment. Specif­i­cally, we talked about how the current situation at the occupied Zapor­izhzhia NPP, how endan­gered other nuclear power plants are, what sanctions should be intro­duced against Rosatom, and what the obstacles for the nuclear sanctions against Russia are. One of the aims was to clarify how Ukraine can be protected against Russian nuclear terrorism and what could be realistic strate­gies to make Europe and G7 inde­pen­dent from the Russian nuclear industry to clear the path to the long-awaited sanctions against Rosatom.

By seizing the Zapor­izhzhia nuclear power plant and shelling Ukrainian energy infra­struc­ture, Russia is black­mailing Europe

Until the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, attacks on and mili­ta­riza­tion of nuclear instal­la­tions in war zones were not on the public agenda due to an inter­na­tional under­standing that nuclear power plants need special protec­tion.[i]Only with the Russian occu­pa­tion of Chornobyl and Zapor­izhzhia nuclear power plants, those scenarios became a reality, and right now the risks are very signif­i­cant. In case of a nuclear accident, it is not only the territory of Ukraine and Russia that would be polluted but, depending on the wind, Eastern and Central Europe and the Baltic states would risk contamination.

While the biggest fear of the public is a direct hit of an NPP, a dysfunc­tional energy system can also cause a nuclear disaster. Knowing that, Russia has been delib­er­ately targeting Ukrainian energy infra­struc­ture, espe­cially the grids and substa­tions, creating condi­tions for a major possible disaster similar to the Three Mile Island accident in the U.S., when a cooling malfunc­tion caused part of the core to melt. Thus, it is not only nuclear power plants them­selves that must be protected to prevent nuclear incidents, but crucial energy infra­struc­ture too.

The situation at the seized Zapor­izhzhia power plant is very critical. As Russia declared ownership over the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, Rosatom took control of Zapor­izhzhia. Before the full-scale war 11 000 people used to work at the site, now only 3 500 workers remain, working under horrible condi­tions. According to reports, Ukrainian staff is intim­i­dated, family members are threat­ened, they cannot leave the city and are being inter­ro­gated and forced to work 12 hours shifts. Despite the promises of the IAEA, the area of the Zapor­izhzhia NPP was not only not demil­i­tarised but, according to Victoria Voit­sitska, Russian military presence has even increased. Many of the members of the discus­sion agreed that the presence of the IEAE at the power plant increased the global percep­tion that the situation is under control. However, as of now, Zapor­izhzhia NPP does not produce elec­tricity. The elec­tricity needed for cooling during the shut-down mode comes from a Ukrainian substa­tion, which is contin­u­ously shelled by Russians.

To protect people, critical infra­struc­ture, and the ships involved in the Grain Initia­tive from Russian missiles, Ukraine urgently needs more air-defence systems and fighter jets. Anton Hofreiter states that scaling up the produc­tion of the IRIS‑T air-defence system in Germany is necessary. IRIS‑T is one of the world’s most effective missiles and with a 100 % success rate, has proven its effi­ciency in Ukraine. However, Hofreiter empha­sizes that as weapon manu­fac­turers are very reluctant to invest more in produc­tion lines, state guar­an­tees would be needed. It remains unclear whether Ukraine will provide these guar­an­tees or whether the EU or Germany must step in. At the same time, Ukraine will need air-defence systems for the next decades to come.

Imple­menting sanctions against Rosatom and ending depen­dency on Russian nuclear industry requires unity among Western countries

Rosatom is a state-owned corpo­ra­tion that comprises over 360 organ­i­sa­tions, including research insti­tutes, nuclear weapons division, and nuclear-powered icebreaker fleet. It is one of the biggest players in nuclear fuel (17% of the global market), uranium produc­tion (16% of the global market), and Rosatom ranks first on the global uranium enrich­ment market (38%).[ii] On top of that, Rosatom operates at 25 sites in 10 countries. Due to their signif­i­cant role in inter­na­tional markets and service offers for the entire NPP life cycle, Russian nuclear industry products and coop­er­a­tion with Rosatom take time to be replaced.

Anton Hofreiter argues that Europe, together with the G7, should make itself inde­pen­dent of Russia in the nuclear sector. Accord­ingly, as long as states rely on coop­er­a­tion with Rosatom, they are suscep­tible to blackmail. Therefore, the next sanctions package must also include Rosatom.

The first step might be personal sanctions against Rosatom managers who interfere in the operation of Ukrainian nuclear power plants and endanger Europe’s nuclear safety. Addi­tion­ally, all inter­gov­ern­mental agree­ments and research projects with Rosatom should be termi­nated. Business relations with Rosatom must be prohib­ited. Already now, the EU and G7 states should set up a task force with govern­ment and parlia­men­tary repre­sen­ta­tives to prepare phasing out coop­er­a­tion with Rosatom.[iii] Victoria Voit­sitska suggests that phasing out EU depen­dence on Russian nuclear products and services must be included in the REPowerEU plan of the European Commis­sion.[iv]

Getting rid of the depen­dency can be very difficult but not impos­sible if there is political will. The discus­sion over nuclear power as a sustain­able energy source is heated, with some arguing for its poten­tials, others for its risks. However, it is clear that it is impos­sible to exchange nuclear power from one day to another. Reor­gan­i­sa­tion of the energy mix requires a long adjust­ment period, which can be a chance to diversify suppliers and cut ties with Rosatom. Ukraine itself is a good example, as it does not import any fuel rods from Russia anymore and has switched its nuclear power units to nuclear fuel from the U.S. manu­fac­turer West­ing­house. At the same time, Ukraine has resumed nuclear waste processing oper­a­tions at the Chornobyl power plant since Russian occupying forces withdrew from the site.

The Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Finland have also expressed a desire to make the tran­si­tion from the Russian nuclear fuel supply. But Hungary and Bulgaria declared that they would veto any sanctions against Rosatom. France, which is not exploiting its own repro­cessing capa­bil­i­ties, because Russia dominates the market with low prices, is also against nuclear sanctions. Anton Hofreiter describes the issue of depen­dency of France on Russian nuclear imports as crucial for EU unity, which is needed for the intro­duc­tion of sanctions against Rosatom. The major question is how to help France to get rid of its depen­dency. Thus, France should be supported in raising its own produc­tion of fuel rods to phase out imports from Russia.

What are the next steps?

The United Kingdom and the United States have already imposed personal sanctions on key Rosatom officials, and the EU and other G7 countries should follow this example.

An effective measure to stop Russia from expanding its influence and creating new depen­den­cies, is to block any ongoing or future projects of Rosatom abroad by intro­ducing secondary sanctions on companies supplying its nuclear power plants with equipment and tech­nolo­gies. Germany demon­strated a good example when the German Federal Office for Economic Affairs and Export Control (BAFA) blocked the delivery of equipment from Siemens Energy for the construc­tion of nuclear power plants in Turkey and Hungary built by Rosatom.

As some EU member states are still dependent on Rosatom, the European Union needs to urgently search for alter­na­tive solutions for facility main­te­nance and replace­ment of Russian-made equipment. Another step should be the diver­si­fi­ca­tion of conver­sion and enrich­ment services, as well as replacing the supplier of uranium raw materials and nuclear fuel along with spent fuel storage and repro­cessing services.[v]

Any new contracts with Rosatom for nuclear fuel services and construc­tion of nuclear power plants need to be frozen or termi­nated, as it was done by Finland when it abandoned plans on building the Hanhikivi NPP with Rosatom.

Imple­menting these and further measures would demon­strate Russia that it cannot act with impunity in nuclear matters and would signif­i­cantly reduce risks of nuclear disasters in Ukraine. At the same time, these sanctions will help Europe to overcome its depen­dency on the Russian nuclear industry and reduce Russia’s revenues. Although these revenues are less signif­i­cant than those from oil exports, they are still important to further weaken Russia’s potential to finance the war.

[i] During armed conflict, nuclear power plants fall under special protec­tion in Art. 56, 1st Addi­tional Protocol, Geneva Conven­tion. Accord­ingly, instal­la­tions and equipment which contains hazardous forces, needs protection.

[ii] Rosatom report 2021

[iii] Anton Hofreiter — Sank­tion­iert Rosatom!

[iv] REPowerEU explained:

[v] Rosatom and Civilian Nuclear Power: Recom­men­da­tions for Sanctions against the Russian Federation


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