The Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant is the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, one of the largest in the world and the most present in the international news today. Located near the Ukrainian city of Enerhodar, in the oblast of the same name as the plant, the nuclear complex, which has six reactors, has been under the control of invading Russian forces since March 12 after an offensive that started days ago. Now, the plant is at the center of a massive information war, and disinformation, between Ukraine and Russia.
This week, the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, made his second visit to Ukraine since the beginning of the war. Speaking in Lviv, he called for the withdrawal of military forces and equipment from the plant site. He also said he had spoken with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky about a visit by an International Atomic Energy Agency mission to inspect the nuclear plant. Interestingly, even under Russian occupation, the plant is operated by the usual Ukrainian employees.
The visit of an IAEA mission seems like an obvious solution, and it is supported by 43 countries that signed a joint declaration asking Russia to withdraw its troops immediately. The point is that neither Russia nor Ukraine support such a visit. Russia claims the mission would arrive at the plant via Kiev, which would compromise the mission’s impartiality. They also reject the possibility of a “neutral zone” and that the mission could only have technical functions.
Ukraine, on the other hand, rejects the visit because it believes that agreeing with this inspiration would be a way of legitimizing the Russian presence. in the region and control of the plant. This exchange of interests also becomes an exchange of blame between Ukrainians and Russians. Moscow accuses Ukrainian forces of firing in the direction of the plant, against Russian troops there. In this sense, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken even accused Russia of using the plant as a “nuclear shield”.
In other words, Russian forces are present in the nuclear complex and , from there, they bomb Ukrainian positions, since the plant is close to the front line. In doing so, they say that the Ukrainians will not retaliate. While Russia accuses Ukraine of firing at the plant, Ukraine accuses Russia of causing “purposeful explosions” to hold Ukraine responsible for any damage or more harmful event.
Here it is important to explain one aspect of the plant. It was designed as a large nuclear complex during the Cold War. In other words, it was designed to withstand substantial damage and eventual attacks, such as the Kiev subway, which was designed to be a safe haven from nuclear attacks. The reference is given by the fact that the subway was in fact used as a refuge for civilians in the first weeks of the war.
The structure of steel and reinforced concrete of the reactors of the Zaporizhzhia plant is sufficient to resist to some direct missile hits. It’s not like in a video game, where any projectile will penetrate the reactor and cause a cataclysmic explosion. There are two problems with the plant’s current situation, but none directly related to the reactors. First, combat prevents proper maintenance. Second, collateral damage in places such as deposits of radioactive material.
Saying that the plant has a solid structure is not to say that “it’s okay” to fight in your region or that there are no risks. There are, but they are progressive, less noticeable. Maybe that’s why they are more dangerous. And the risks end up being “hijacked” by the two countries involved in the conflict, both the invaded and the invader. Ukraine spectacularizes the risk to get more international support. Supporting Ukraine is “avoiding a global nuclear disaster”.
Russia, on the other hand, seeks to reduce risks to maintain its military advantage and to play on his enemy’s back the responsibility for some disaster, especially accusing Ukraine of planning some “false flag” operation to incriminate Russia. “The plant is not dangerous, if something happens it was deliberate by the Ukrainians.” There is not so much “nuclear blackmail” there, since a disaster in Zaporizhzhia would also contaminate much of southern Russia.
The existing blackmail is energetic. The plant generates almost half of Ukraine’s electricity that is derived from the nuclear matrix and, on the total bill, almost a quarter of all electricity generated in Ukraine. Without the plant, much of the country would be in the dark. And Russia has already threatened both to shut down the plant, for “real demilitarization” in the country’s view, and to connect the plant to the Russian system, basically “diverting” the generated energy.
These are the biggest risks. for Ukraine, which tries to focus the international debate on the nuclear aspect and the trauma of Chernobyl to mobilize the international community. Deep down, however, much more “mundane” and simple would be for the country to be without electricity in the middle of a war, with just a few months left for the region’s harsh winter. Control of Zaporizhzhia is not a Hollywood movie-style nuclear blackmail, but it is a knife in the Ukrainian energy artery.