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Are Russian forces in Ukraine exploiting Western fears of a nuclear disaster?

The IAEA has warned of “potentially catastrophic consequences” after an attack on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.

By Ido Vock

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN’s nuclear safety watchdog, has warned of “potentially catastrophic consequences” after shelling damaged the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant – the largest in Europe – in a Russian-occupied part of Ukraine. Russia and Ukraine have traded blame for the bombardment.

An attack on 6 August hit close to a storage facility holding spent nuclear fuel, damaging radiation sensors at the site, according to Enerhoatom, the Ukrainian state-owned company which operates the country’s nuclear plants. The company added that no radiation leaks had been detected.

The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, reacted with fury to what he called “Russian nuclear terror”, warning that the consequences of an accident would be felt far outside Ukraine’s borders. “No one will stop the wind that will spread the radioactive contamination,” Zelensky said.

Ukraine was the site of the worst nuclear accident in history, when the Chernobyl nuclear power plant melted down in 1986, spreading radiation across swathes of Europe and rendering parts of Ukraine and Belarus uninhabitable for centuries to come. There was alarm when Russian forces seized Chernobyl on the 24 February, first day of the invasion. Russia held it for five weeks before withdrawing on 31 March. There was no further damage to the ruins of the power plant, but Ukraine’s nuclear inspectorate found some radiation hotspots linked to the activities of Russian troops and the disturbance of contaminated soil.  

[See also: The crisis around Taiwan is only just beginning]

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The Institute for the Study of War, a think tank, wrote: “Russian forces are likely using the [nuclear power plant] to play on Western fears of a nuclear disaster in Ukraine in an effort to degrade Western will to provide military support to a Ukrainian counteroffensive, while also effectively using the plant as a nuclear shield to prevent Ukrainian strikes on Russian forces and equipment.”

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The Insider, a Russian independent media website, reported this month that Russian occupation forces may have mined the Zaporizhzhia plant. The Russian side may be storing ammunition and explosives on site, according to the outlet.

The IAEA has called for Russia to allow its experts to visit the plant and assess damage from the strike. The organisation said it has not been granted access since before the conflict began more than five months ago.

The shelling of the power station highlights the manifold and varied risks of the conflict in Ukraine. From fears of famine triggered by a months-long blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports – now partially easing as a deal allowing grain shipments out of the war-torn nation appears to be holding – to the risk of a nuclear accident, the world has not faced such a complex conflict with the potential for global consequences for decades.

This article first appeared in the World Review newsletter. It comes out on Mondays and Fridays; subscribe here.

[See also: The perils of autocracy in Xi Jinping’s China and Vladimir Putin’s Russia]