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Fighting at Ukraine nuclear plant highlights risks of US export policies

So far, alarm bells are falling on deaf ears on Capitol Hill

Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine is Europe's largest nuclear power station.
Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine is Europe's largest nuclear power station. (Carl Court/Getty Images)

Russia’s seizure earlier this year of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear energy facility is shining a new light on the safety and security risks of the atomic export policies of the United States and other technologically advanced countries. 

But the alarm bells that a handful of nuclear security experts are trying to raise about the broader policy implications for the scenario currently unfolding at Europe’s largest nuclear energy plant appear to be falling on deaf ears with the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog agency and within the Biden administration and on Capitol Hill. That is even as ongoing fighting there is jeopardizing critical systems at Zaporizhzhia that are intended to prevent a radiological release.

“I think it certainly says we should think hard about exporting nuclear reactors to countries that might actually have ground wars in them,” said Alan Kuperman, who leads the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “Do you really want to be selling reactors to a country that has a decent chance of being in an air war? It’s just one more concern, you have economics, you have nonproliferation, and now you have this concern of safety from wartime attacks.”

The Polish government announced late last month it had selected the American atomic power company Westinghouse Electric Co. to build the Eastern European country’s first nuclear energy reactors. The company won a contract to construct three of a total of six planned reactors at an initial estimated cost of $20 billion. Construction is anticipated to begin in 2026 with the first reactor slated to be commissioned around 2033.

Vice President Kamala Harris said Poland’s decision to make the United States its primary nuclear technology partner fulfilled multiple shared interests. “We can address the climate crisis, strengthen European energy security, and deepen the US-Poland strategic relationship,” she wrote in a Twitter post at the end of October.

Left unsaid, however, was any mention about what should happen if years down the road Poland comes under attack by Russia and its nuclear reactors, much like the Zaporizhzhia nuclear energy site, are seized and become a contested site of fighting that jeopardizes the continued safe operation of the reactors.

Granted, if Russia were to attack Poland, which is a member of NATO, Article 5 would almost certainly be immediately invoked and the United States would be at war with the world’s other largest nuclear weapons power. That would make fears of a massive radiation release along the lines of either the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine or the 2011 Fukushima meltdown in Japan seem a distant secondary concern.

Nonetheless, the likelihood that some potential revanchist successor to Russian President Vladimir Putin could try reconstituting portions of the old Soviet Union should at least merit some official U.S. government assessments about what the risks for expanding nuclear energy into Eastern and Central Europe would be if other hot wars are in the continent’s future, argues Henry Sokolski, executive director of the nonpartisan Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.

Sokolski, who served in the Pentagon during the George H.W. Bush administration, said he was frustrated at the lack of interest officials in the Energy Department, Pentagon and on Capitol Hill have shown to the subject of whether U.S. nuclear energy export policies may be setting the scene for future Zaporizhzhias.

“There is something absolutely inane about this. We’re not saying get rid of nuclear power. We’re saying, ‘What are you going to do where you know they might be a target and you know they might be a target in several places,’” said Sokolski. “And now we have Zaporizhzhia. What more proof do we need?”

In September, five nuclear experts, including Kuperman, wrote to the White House to ask the National Security Council to rein in the Energy Department’s Office of Nuclear Energy, which they said was “promoting spent-fuel reprocessing and plutonium recycle, including abroad” in contravention of decades of U.S. government nonproliferation policy going back to the 1970s when plutonium India generated from its U.S.-supported atomic energy program was used to build and test a nuclear weapon.

The White House and Energy Department did not respond to requests for comment.

Meanwhile, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, has sounded dismissive about the concerns raised by Sokolski and others.

“It’s very simple, the problem in Ukraine and in Russia is they are at war. The problem is not nuclear energy,” IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi said in a BBC interview that aired earlier this month.

He also implicitly suggested the paramount importance of reducing global carbon emissions trumped concerns about radiation releases stemming from future potential wars involving one or more countries with nuclear reactors on their territories.

 “And when it comes to climate change, you don’t have 2 million solutions, you have just a few and the fact of the matter is that already now, as we speak, nuclear energy is providing 25 percent, more or less, of the clean energy which is produced all over the world,” said Grossi. “We believe that nuclear has a place at the table …it can provide a safe, clean source of energy and this is why many countries in Africa and in other places are turning to nuclear.”

Among the countries in various states of pursuing atomic energy programs, including some with direct support from the United States, are the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Rwanda, Nigeria, and Bangladesh.

Containment domes

Some lawmakers have signaled an interest in addressing the matter.

The office of Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., who has a long legislative record of being concerned about the dangers of nuclear weapons, said he had submitted an amendment to this year’s annual defense policy bill that would require the Pentagon to report on the dangers to reactors and atomic power plants in areas that have recently experienced military fighting, such as Zaporizhzhia, or are likely to in the future.

“We need to take lessons learned from what’s going on in Ukraine. This is a serious situation. While certainly there’s been consideration for many years about how to protect nuclear power plants from an attack in a conflict, I think that what was so surprising in this case is it is just hard to believe just a few years ago that Ukraine could be facing a situation like this,” said Ross Matzkin-Bridger, a former senior Energy Department official specializing in the safekeeping of weapons-sensitive nuclear material.

Matzkin-Bridger, now the senior director for nuclear materials security at the nonpartisan Nuclear Threat Initiative, said overall nuclear power is very safe and in some circumstances is a good renewable energy option in places where it can be cost-effective and has the support of the local public.

Romania is in the process of acquiring a small modular reactor from the United States — potentially the first in all of Europe — to expand its nuclear energy program. The next-generation reactors are much smaller than traditional reactors, so their initial construction is less costly.

Additionally, because these small modular reactors are championed as being inherently safe due to modern design improvements, their manufacturers argue they do not need containment domes, which are typically made from steel-reinforced concrete and multiple feet thick, Kuperman said.

“The argument is that they’re supposed to be less prone to release of radioactivity in the event of an accident. The manufacturers say, ‘Since we don’t believe they would release radioactive material in the event of an accident, therefore we don’t need a containment dome,’” said Kuperman. “If it doesn’t have a containment dome, then even a small plane or a missile, or maybe even a drone, potentially could trigger a catastrophic accident releasing radiation.”

Nuclear reactors in the Middle East have been attacked 13 times with missiles since 1980 including four separate attacks by the United States, Iran, and Israel on Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s reactor at Osirak and seven Iraqi strikes in the 1980s against Iran’s Bushehr reactor, according to Sokolski

“It’s not new that reactors have come under fire,” Kuperman said. “What’s new in this case is the capture of a reactor and war occurring on a ground in country with a large nuclear power plant. I think this is the first time this has raised all sorts of things that even people who wrote about this [missile attacks on nuclear reactor risks] had never considered.”

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