Ukraine Crisis Highlights Security Needs Of Civilian Nuclear Power

On November 27-28 a conference in Paris addressed a broad spectrum of challenges humanity is facing. Renowned thinkers, including Nuriel Roubini and Jacob Frenkel, the former Chairman of JP Morgan International, and three central bankers from Iceland, Tunisia, and Armenia, warned about inflation and the growing mountain of debt threatening the global economy. The panel at which this author addressed civilian nuclear security was organized by Dialogue of the Continents, a project of the Astana Club, the brainchild of the Nazarbayev Foundation. The panel was chaired by the veteran nuclear policy expert Ambassador Kairat Abusseitov, the former First Deputy Foreign Minister of Kazakhstan.

Today the planet shudders at the prospect of Russia’s first use of nuclear weapons and its military attacks on Ukrainian nuclear reactors. The world faced nuclear crises before. On October 27th, 1962 Vasili Arkhipov, a former Vice Admiral in the Soviet Navy, prevented a nuclear war when he countermanded the orders of two other officers and prevented a nuclear attack against the US Navy during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In September 1983 Soviet Airforce Colonel Stanislav Petrov manually overrode a missile launch system that erroneously detected an American attack. Two months later in November 1983 the NATO military exercise Able Archer almost triggered World War III when the Soviets believed it to be a real attack. In 1995 a Norwegian weather missile almost triggered a Russian massive strike on the U.S., which President Yeltsin canceled.

In every instance, nuclear war was prevented by the judgment of individuals where systems had failed. This was possible as adversarial powers recognized the “rules of the game” and created an atmosphere of cooperation to avoid nuclear confrontation amidst other profound disagreements. That atmosphere is gone, and the next time a Russian alert system goes off we may not have a Colonel Petrov to save us. And it won’t be the ballistic missiles that may be the cause of a massive nuclear disaster.

International law explicitly provides for the immunity of nuclear power plants during war. There are even measures that specifically plan for their safety. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for instance has promulgated 16 legally binding conventions and protocols under the international legal framework for nuclear security to prevent, detect and respond to threats to nuclear security within one state. Nevertheless, the international community has proven unable to stymy Russian actions around Chernobyl and the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plants that amount to nuclear blackmail and flagrantly violate these laws.

Enforcing the existing international law is easier said than done. International law presupposes an agreement between state actors, which is sorely lacking today. Calling counter-terrorism instruments into action requires UN approval, created by an ad hoc committee.

Russia’s actions against Ukrainian energy plants would have to be declared an act of nuclear terrorism for the IAEA agreement to be legally binding and enforced by the tools at disposal of the UN, making any meaningful and swift response to Russia’s hostility practically impossible. Russia’s leverage in the UN structures as a UN Security Council permanent member with veto power renders this almost a fantasy. Besides, the IAEA is desperate for Russian approval to enforce any safety measures in Zaporizhzhia, with even research teams conducting precautionary visits facing stiff restrictions. Being a nuclear state under the non-proliferation treaty Russia is under no obligation to place the Zaporizhzhia plant under IAEA safeguards and given the likelihood that it will not recognize that the plant comes under Ukraine’s comprehensive safeguards agreement, IAEA may find access to the plant completely denied next fall.

This is not just a Russian or Ukrainian problem; this is an emerging structural problem of the international energy security system that will reoccur if nothing is done now. Supply chain disruptions of Russian natural gas and the climate change-driven pressures to decarbonize energy production is making nuclear power more attractive and will increase nuclear power production, including by Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). The future ubiquity of civilian nuclear power means that currently lacking international frameworks must be overhauled – or civilian nuclear power would be un-investable and too risky.

Even though direct enforcement against great powers will remain difficult, there are still immediate practical steps that can be taken. The first is NGOs, intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), and national governments must systematically increase awareness of this problem. A false sense of security after the Cold War has dangerously numbed many to the existential threat that nuclear weapons represent, with polls repeatedly showing an alarming lack of concern towards these tools of extinction.

Beyond often vague “awareness”, institutional mechanisms related to nuclear enforcement can be changed. Creating a permanent UN or IAEA response force would be the first step to rectifying this problem. While the IAEA has been effective on the enforcement end so far, its dependence on UN approval makes it ineffective against critical threats that arise from unforeseen global events. This must be changed.

Involving more nuclear powers in enforcement efforts would aid proposed and existing security systems. Currently, many responsible nuclear powers are under-involved in enforcement and non-proliferation. China’s plans to build dozens of nuclear power plants in the next 5 years and its competition with the US should not be impediments to it being more involved in civilian security. In fact, the key to Cold War peace was the communication and cooperation of rivals. India and Pakistan are similarly responsible but under-involved nuclear stakeholders which should be more active and visible in nuclear security enforcement institutions.

Thankfully some strategic improvements to the current international code have already manifested. Limiting nuclear proliferation has been an important US policy, with much support and cooperation from nations like South Africa, Kazakhstan, Argentina, and Brazil in the 1990s. South Africa cooperated with the USA at the end of Apartheid to dismantle its nuclear arsenal. President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan worked with the US to dismantle the Soviet-era arsenal on his country’s territory, minimize the threat of nuclear weapons, and ban nuclear arms testing at the Semipalatinsk (Semey) range in 1991, as his first order as the newly elected President of Kazakhstan while the USSR was still intact.

Examples of such international solidarity should consolidate the safety of nuclear energy infrastructure. If Russia’s reckless activity around Zaporizhzhia doesn’t act as a reckoning moment for us all about the urgency of nuclear reactor safety that translates into a meaningful security reform, the next “reckoning moment” may involve an incident that makes Chernobyl and Fukushima a child’s prank.

International cooperation to improve and enforce the legal code on protecting nuclear power plants in war zones is a necessary course of action that will provide a secure environment for the proliferation of nuclear energy. Kazakhstan, the number one producer of uranium, could play a key role in fostering this agenda.