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Nuclear Threats in Ukraine Today and Their Implications for Global Security Tomorrow

Source: Ігор Діклевич, March 2, 2019

By Christine Parthemore and Andrea Rezzonico

Amidst the mounting human toll of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, its attacks are affecting nuclear energy sites as well. As of this writing, Russian forces have seized control of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant – the largest site of operating reactors in Europe. To date, the fighting at this plant and subsequent fire has not released harmful radiation or led to a catastrophic explosion. However, the plant’s staff is being held against their will to continue operating the nuclear reactors, likely enduring extreme stress and a lack of sufficient rest. Last week, the power line to Chernobyl was cut off, and while it is not currently operating, radioactive materials remain stored in spent fuel pools that require continuing safety measures. These events signal the extreme dangers that can surround nuclear sites in times of insecurity and in conflict zones. 

For the international community, the immediate focus will remain on restoring safe operations at these sites—and hopefully fostering an end to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in order to minimize further casualties and destruction. 

At the same time, these events highlight several longer-term issues that the United States and the world must begin to address.

First, the United States needs to prepare for countries ramping up nuclear energy development as a means of pivoting away from Russia as their vendor of choice. Many U.S. officials have long been concerned that Russia leading the nuclear export market poses strategic and economic disadvantages to the United States, and reduces U.S. opportunities for strengthening norms of safety, security, and nonproliferation. 

Currently, Rosatom, Russia’s state-owned nuclear power corporation, has approved numerous projects around the world including in Hungary, Finland, Turkey, and Egypt, and has inked many nuclear cooperation agreements with other nations. Recent reports indicate that construction is ongoing at Turkey’s Akkuyu and Egypt’s El Dabba sites. Russia is also seeking to be at the forefront of exporting technology such as small modular reactors and possibly floating nuclear reactors to nations seeking to import nuclear energy technology, such as the Philippines.  

Over the last decade, the United States has pivoted away from its role as a global nuclear energy supplier. However, the U.S. government should now prepare a strategy for how it might assist countries that were turning to Russia for nuclear energy to help meet their skyrocketing clean energy needs before its invasion of Ukraine.

Second, the United States and international community need to closely monitor whether Russia’s attacks near nuclear plants and their seizure affect public views regarding nuclear energy. If countries pivot away from nuclear energy as a result of Russia’s attacks on nuclear sites, that could have implications for whether the world succeeds in aggressively mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and avoiding the worst security implications of a changing climate. 

If numerous countries do continue pursuing additional nuclear energy in the coming years, they need to better account for safe and secure operations knowing how dramatically the threat environment can evolve over time—and countries that can robustly assist in that analysis should be ready to support them. 

The United States needs to plan for both trajectories potentially evolving in the coming years, and position the nation and our allies optimally to promote strong norms and standards for such nuclear facilities in the face of rising intersectional risk. Moreover, the United States should work with allies and partners who share our norms in such endeavors.

Third, all nations and organizations responsible for nuclear infrastructure need to improve planning for the convergence of multiple risks that are reshaping this world. The invasion of Ukraine is a reminder of the need to think dynamically about the long-term safety and security of nuclear reactors, including existing sites and future builds.

Over the last several years, part of CSR’s mission has centered on investigating the direct and second-order ways in which climate, nuclear, and security risks are interacting and how they are likely to intersect in the future. We explored these trends via case studies on Egypt, Turkey, Russia, the South China Sea, India, China, North Korea and more. 

One of the central takeaways that emerged from CSR’s analysis is the importance of incorporating the highest projections related to climate impacts rather than relying on more conservative estimates. As the new IPCC report released a few weeks ago underscored, climate change impacts are coming faster and more intensely than initially predicted. For example, layering the most extreme sea level rise projection map over the proposed site of a coastal nuclear reactor indisputably illustrates how vulnerable such strategic areas are to climate change. CSR’s work highlights how existing tools and data can be used to map out potential pathways to future security risks that may affect nuclear sites and nations that have nuclear energy systems, nuclear weapons, or both.

This work emphasized the need to dynamically consider how climate, socioeconomic, and other trends can combine to create or influence security risks over time in places that may presently seem safe and stable. Analyses commonly referred to as design basis threat assessments should account for the convergence of many risks in specific places, including how climate and ecological factors may interact with political and economic strains in ways that influence security in places that hold nuclear sites. More holistic analyses of risks can also illuminate grander geopolitical shifts that can be game changing in terms of the threat landscape. Indeed, in a 2017 report based on CSR’s working group that has examined these risks, we noted presciently that trends pulling the world closer to the breaking points of nuclear war and catastrophic climate change could contribute to great upheavals in world history. 

As we are currently witnessing, the world must plan for sudden, simultaneous crises – or complex emergencies – that may involve state or non-state actors, natural disasters and/or intentional sabotage, financial collapse, geopolitical tensions, resource insecurity, and more. States must build resilient systems and incorporate converging, existential threats into their preparation in order to anticipate, rather than react, to catastrophic scenarios – especially those related to nuclear risks.

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