Move to nuclear power rises weaponisation fears

The battle over Ukraine’s nuclear power plants has created a new threat with governments warned of the risk of their country’s nuclear power plants being weaponised as they turn to nuclear to tackle the ongoing energy crisis.

Dr Simon Bennett, a civil safety expert at the University of Leicester civil safety issued the warning  as he published a new book, Atomic Blackmail? The weaponisation of nuclear facilities during the Russia-Ukraine War.

Bennett said the ongoing conflict is confirming long-running concerns about the security of nuclear power plants and their potential to be weaponised to gain political traction over an opponent.

The events of the Russia-Ukraine War have demonstrated the capacity that nuclear power plants have to amplify protagonists’ hitting power, he warned. This is believed to be the first time in the history of nuclear electricity that nuclear power plants have been occupied by an invading force.

The installations at Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia have been captured by Russian forces and Zaporizhzhia remains under Russian control. Other installations in Ukraine have been overflown by Russian munitions, such as cruise and ballistic missiles. Outbuildings at both the Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia sites have been struck by munitions. Both Russia and Ukraine deploy munitions in the vicinity of nuclear power plants.

The possibility of gaining tactical or strategic advantage by weaponising an opponent’s nuclear facilities makes them an attractive target – especially for protagonists who find themselves on the back foot, according to Bennett.

Dr Simon Bennett at the University of Leicester said: “The risk is not that of a nuclear detonation. Rather it is that of creating a dirty bomb when a conventional munition such as a ballistic or cruise missile, artillery shell or suicide drone breaches a containment, liberating radionuclides to the environment.

“A dirty bomb creates transborder or transboundary hazard, a serious radiological contamination of the environment – land, air and water – potentially over vast areas and for decades. Radionuclides liberated during the 26 April 1986 Chernobyl fire were transported on easterly winds as far as Cumbria in north-west England,” he said.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has called on the protagonists to create and respect cordons sanitaires around Ukraine’s nuclear installations, including the highly vulnerable six-reactor Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (NPP). A cordon sanitaire is defined by the IAEA as a military exclusion zone created to mitigate the risk of accidental damage to a NPP, which protagonists would be forbidden from entering. The UK has lent the IAEA diplomatic support.

Bennett added: “As countries expand existing nuclear electricity programmes, and as other countries go nuclear, the risk of weaponisation and atomic blackmail will grow. After years of prevarication, Britain, alarmed at the unreliability of so-called green energy and worried about energy insecurity, is set to expand its nuclear electricity programme. There is a positive relationship between the number of NPPs in a country and its atomic blackmail risk-exposure. In a European or World War, Britain’s NPPs would be as much a target as the NPPs of any other country.

“Any country with a nuclear power programme, and countries neighbouring countries with nuclear power programmes, should take note of what has happened in Ukraine, and what might happen in the future. There will probably be a 2024 Ukrainian offensive and, possibly, a 2025 offensive. This war will not end quickly.”