Four unanswered questions about the intersection of war and nuclear energy

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Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine. The two large chimneys are in a coal plant about 3 km beyond the nuclear plant. Photo credit: Ralf1969 via Wikimedia Commons.

During the night of March 3, Russian military forces seized the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine, damaged its infrastructure and spread fear of a nuclear disaster. Fortunately, the attack did not threaten sensitive areas of the nuclear power plant and radiation levels around the plant did not cause concern. Yet the crisis has underscored the danger posed by a war that crosses paths with a nuclear power plant. Since it may be a question of when, not if, the next wartime attack on a nuclear power plant occurs, academics and policy makers would be wise to revisit the assessment concepts and crisis response protocols of nuclear power plants in war zones. Here are some unanswered questions that deserve immediate consideration:

How should experts redefine the boundaries between nuclear security and nuclear safety? Nuclear safety professionals seek to understand and manage the risks of nuclear power plants produced by human-caused errors (eg Chernobyl), system failures (eg Three Mile Island) or natural events (eg example, Fukushima). Nuclear security professionals, on the other hand, are concerned with preventing states from engaging in nuclear conflicts and terrorists from diverting nuclear power plants or nuclear materials. However, when war intersects with a nuclear power plant, as it did in Zaporizhzhia, the distinction between nuclear safety and nuclear security collapses.

Any form of military damage to critical infrastructure for the safe operation of a nuclear power plant has the potential to blur the line between nuclear safety and nuclear security. Even if the belligerent causing the damage is clearly identified, it may still be difficult to determine whether these actions were intentional or accidental. For example, the armed forces could endanger the security of a nuclear power plant by disrupting the supply of electricity in pursuit of other objectives.

The boundaries between nuclear safety and nuclear security also blur when the military occupy a nuclear power plant and interfere with its safe operation. If an accident occurs while soldiers are occupying a nuclear power plant, doubts about the responsibilities or intentions of the military occupants will not be removed. For example, ill-advised directives from military occupiers to plant operators could lead to mismanagement of a nuclear accident, which could endanger operators and local populations.

How can experts better understand and assess the dangers of wartime attacks on nuclear power plants? Nuclear power plants are designed to resist hazards arising from operator error, system failures or natural disturbances. They are also run to thwart the intent of terrorists to cause nuclear accidents or to divert nuclear materials. Nuclear experts understand these risks and have established protocols for these dangers.

Like a natural disaster, a warzone attack can come from outside. However, the similarities end there. Nuclear power plants are not designed to withstand military projectiles, and nuclear safety analysts have no experience of dealing with the uncertainties that characterize military conflict. The truth is that nuclear experts know little about how protective structures such as the containment building or the reactor vessel can withstand the destructive forces of a fired projectile. This is especially true for military projectiles, since usually very little information about their penetrating and destructive power is available.

How does war impact the management of nuclear safety? Plant operators are trained to ensure plant safety not only during normal operation, but also during power outages, natural disasters, and accidents. However, they are not trained to fulfill their functions in the context of a war that threatens both the establishment and their lives.

During Russia’s takeover of the Zaporizhzhia power plant, for example, personnel were forced to perform their duties at gunpoint. Such a scenario leaves traders susceptible to mistakes. If the occupying military forces lack knowledge of nuclear safety, they could hinder the operators in their tasks necessary to operate the reactor safely. Moreover, the soldiers on site might not even prioritize the safe operation of the plant if other military objectives prevail.

Last but not least, the police forces, fire departments, hospitals, public transport and communication networks that usually play a role in the response to nuclear accidents can also be unavailable during an armed conflict.

How can a wartime nuclear accident lower the nuclear threshold? When an armed conflict involves countries with nuclear weapons, a conventional conflict can degenerate into a nuclear conflict. Countries develop nuclear doctrines that specify the conditions under which they would use nuclear weapons. This allows a level of control over possible nuclear escalations. The nuclear taboo – the idea that the use of nuclear weapons is immoral – also limits the use of nuclear weapons. However, no one knows how a wartime attack on a nuclear power plant might affect perceptions of nuclear escalation or nuclear taboo.

During the recent crisis, the Ukrainian government blamed Russia for bombing the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, while Russian state media accused the Ukrainian armed forces of sabotaging its own nuclear infrastructure. If the cause of the accident is not clear, the opposing parties may blame each other, which will contribute to the escalation of political tensions between the adversaries.

When a nuclear power plant is caught in the crossfire, one side may assume that the other wants to turn a conventional conflict into a nuclear one. A country’s reaction to such an attack further depends on its nuclear doctrine. For example, some experts believe that China would consider retaliating with nuclear weapons if its civilian nuclear facilities were attacked by conventional strikes, whether the attack was intentional or accidental.

Finally, if a nuclear accident were to occur during a war, the omnipresence and invisibility of radioactive dangers would lead to confusion and distrust among military actors. Opponents could accuse each other of using radioactive substances for military purposes, such as dirty bombs. In addition, radiation could cross borders and affect countries initially not involved in the conflict. If these countries possess nuclear capabilities, the likelihood of a nuclear escalation may increase. For example, if NATO member Poland were hit by a nuclear accident in Ukraine caused by Russian airstrikes, would NATO join the war?

A previously hypothetical scenario – an armed conflict endangering the security of a nuclear power plant – has now materialized. Policy makers and academics can no longer remain naïve. Military conflicts threaten the security of nuclear power plants in ways that are not well understood, and a nuclear accident in a war zone blurs the line between conventional warfare and nuclear warfare. While many countries in the world could adopt nuclear energy, nuclear power plants remain active for decades and world peace does not reign, the crisis of the Ukrainian installation of Zaporizhzhia sounds an urgent alarm for the experts nuclear weapons and policy makers are re-examining their understanding of nuclear dangers.


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