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Stop another Chernobyl from happening — in Ukraine and elsewhere

Associated Press
A Russian serviceman stands guard in an area of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station in territory under Russian military control in southeastern Ukraine, on May 1, 2022. The Zaporizhzhia plant is one of the 10 biggest nuclear plants in the world. Shelling near the plant has raised fears of a catastrophe.

Has the immediate danger of a catastrophic explosion at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant concentrated our minds sufficiently to avert a disaster, and can we turn it into an opportunity to learn and reduce such risks everywhere? 

A United Nations team will visit the plant, Europe’s largest nuclear power station, which in recent weeks has come under shelling that endangers the safety of its core nuclear functions. Ukraine and Russia blame each other for military action that threatens potentially disastrous consequences for Ukraine, Russia, the region, and the world. Urgent international action is needed to stave off a catastrophe.

Serious damage to the supply of electricity to the plant could cause a nuclear meltdown, even if modern nuclear plants like those at Zaporizhzhia are considered better able to withstand equipment malfunction than was the Chernobyl reactor. Radioactive fallout would spread over a vast region — the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 impacted Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and Sweden, among other areas. This time, the actual countries affected would be determined by upper atmospheric wind currents, but undoubtedly would include Ukraine and likely western Russia.

No nuclear plant should be hostage in a conflict and then be turned into a fortress and staging ground for military action to gain strategic advantage. In Ukraine alone, there are nine other operating nuclear power reactors, three of which are near the frontline of Russia’s war. There are dozens more located in regions globally that are in potential conflict zones, including India and Pakistan.

International action is needed now to deal with the immediate challenge in Zaporizhzhia, as well as to set norms for the treatment of nuclear power plants in potential conflict zones. Ukraine, Russia and the international community all have an interest in replicating the India-Pakistan 1988 agreement banning attacks on each other’s nuclear installations and facilities.

For Zaporizhzhia, the central purpose must be to end all activities that threaten the integrity and stability of the nuclear plant and to permit its continued safe operation within the Ukrainian electricity grid. The necessary steps would include:

  • Creating around the plant a 15-kilometer radius zone where neither side will take military activity of any kind — on land, in the air or from the sea.
  • Monitoring and patrolling the secure plant zone by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and a UN-sponsored peacekeeping force (PKO) of neutral states broadly acceptable to Ukraine and Russia. The IAEA would assure nuclear safety and integrity. The PKO would separate forces, monitor their presence, and verify reductions and locations of forces permitted.
  • Managing the zone to assure the continued unhindered and safe operation of the facility by its Ukrainian employees. That must include the evacuation of all heavy weapons from the zone (artillery, anti-aircraft systems, missiles and tanks), a no-fly zone, and an open land connection to Ukrainian-held territory to facilitate the monitored passage by the UN of plant staff and equipment and experts to assure the continued safe operation of the facility. Any residual military forces should be withdrawn, two kilometers at least, from the periphery of the plant.

The recent agreement on grain shipments provides a model for negotiating such a deal. The negotiations should be conducted on a quiet basis between Russia and Ukraine, under the aegis of the UN and the IAEA, with the assistance of a potential neutral facilitator and the full support of the United States, the other P-5 members, and the European Union.

The agreement should be registered with the United Nations, and a mandatory Security Council resolution, ideally adopted unanimously, would authorize the peacekeeping force and establish the IAEA monitoring activities.

Similar arrangements should be put in place for Ukraine’s other nuclear power plants. IAEA and UN observers, with the cooperation of the Ukrainian government, should be stationed at all the plants to assure that any attacks against them are terminated and prohibited.

The UN Secretary General, with the full support of the UN Security Council, should sponsor a follow-on conference to be attended by all states where the more than 400 existing nuclear power plants are located. The purpose would be to adopt a strict code dealing with such plants in actual or potential conflicts.

Achieving these goals will not be easy. Russia has said it rejects a demilitarized zone around Zaporizhzhia. But on this they are losing the international information battle; they were hardly enthusiastic at first about the grain deal. As was true there, it will take insistent public pressure and the active engagement of the UN Secretary General to start serious negotiations. 

The international community has a genuine opportunity — not only to avert an immediate catastrophe, but also to further mitigate this dangerous conflict and, in the process, make the whole world safer. 

Thomas R. Pickering is a former Under Secretary of State and ambassador to Russia, India, the United Nations and Israel and Assistant Secretary for Oceans, Environment and Science.

William Ury  is a Distinguished Fellow with the Harvard Law School Program on Negotiation and co-author of “Getting to Yes.”

Tags International Atomic Energy Agency Nuclear power Russian war in Ukraine United Nations Security Council Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant

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