After Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Bellona shut down its activity in the aggressor country. On 18 April 2023, the Russian general prosecutor’s office declared Bellona to be an undesirable organization in Russia. However, we continue to keep track of events in the field of nuclear and radiation security relating to Russia and Ukraine, which we believe are of interest to readers abroad. We analyze the situation to assess the degree of Russia’s international influence on other countries and balance up the risks connected with this. We present you with a survey of these events for April 2023. Follow the links to read the digests for March and February.
In this issue:
After the capture of the Zaporizhzhia NPP in March last year, Russians have illegally gained access to secret information containing nuclear technical data of American origin, the export of which is controlled by the US government. This is discussed in a letter from the US Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration of 17 March 2023, which was sent to the Director General of Rosatom Alexey Likhachev.
This was first reported on 14 April by the RBC Ukraine agency, which obtained a copy of this letter. The letter states that “because the items identified in attachment 1 are export-controlled to Ukraine and ZNPP only, it is unlawful under United States law for non-authorized persons, including, but not limited to: Russian citizens and Russian entities, such as Rosatom and its subsidiaries, to knowingly and willfully access, possess, control, export, store, seize, review, re-export, ship, transfer, copy, manipulate such technology or technical data, or direct, or authorize others to do the same, without such Russian entities becoming authorized recipients by the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy.”
Four of the six units of the ZNPP use fuel from the American company Westinghouse. The units were modernized in order to shift from Russian nuclear fuel to American fuel. Accordingly, technical information was sent to the plant which is export-controlled by the US. Ukraine received permission to possess and use this information.
Another letter (1, 2), sent to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Inspector General on 24 October 2022, signed by Andrea Ferkile, the Director of the Energy Department’s Office of Nonproliferation Policy, notes that this office conducted a detailed inspection and confirmed access was obtained to this information by a third party without permission. These violations are subject to criminal prosecution in the U.S., the letter states.
According to this document, Russians received access to two elements: to the Westinghouse Electric Corporation’s Advanced Nodal Code (ANC-H), which is a two-energy group, three-dimensional reactor core simulator code, and also to 3KEYRELAP5-RT, an improved code of a thermal-hydraulic simulation of the nuclear reactor, which is used for controlling and monitoring training devices and accelerates processes of modelling various situations at the plant.
The letter to Rosatom warning of criminal prosecution practically shows that a study of the issue of the unsanctioned possession by the Russians of the information has been completed, and all materials gathered have been sent to the U.S. Department of Justice for further inspection. RBC-Ukraine was informed of this by a source familiar with the legal aspects of investigating the situation. But the investigation has not yet ended. So far only the fact of possessing the information has been established. The Department of Justice will now carry out the next stage of work – to establish how the Russian side was able to obtain the information. “The question is whether measures were taken by the holder of this information (ZNPP management, – ed.) to stop a third party from gaining access to it,” said the source.
Under U.S. legislation, responsibility for information on nuclear technologies falling into the hands of third parties is borne not only by the party that possessed it, but also those who allowed this to happen through their actions or inaction. RBC Ukraine requested a comment from Energoatom as to whether timely and sufficient measures were taken to protect classified information at the ZNPP. The press service of Energoatom replied that the company and its employees “did not provide any classified information to the aggressor on nuclear technologies of American origin, which are subject to export control from the U.S. government.” All necessary measures were taken according to legislation which made the capture of this information impossible, the company noted. “It must be noted that the military operations against a nuclear facility that are taking place at the ZNPP are unprecedented and without precedent in world history. When the NPP was designed, no protocols were drawn up for actions if the facility was captured by armed formations of another nation in a full-scale war. Not only did Ukraine not have corresponding protocols, neither did the IAEA.”
A statement from the Rosatom Communications Department published in Russian media on 20 April, confirms that the letter from the U.S. Energy Department was received, and that Rosatom informed the Russian Foreign Ministry that it was prepared to discuss with the U.S. side questions of interest to them under the current agreements between the Russian and U.S. governments on cooperation in the field of the peaceful use of nuclear energy.
The advisor to Rosenergoatom’s CEO Renat Karchaa told Interfax that the American demands concerned calculation of the thermal-hydraulic conditions of the core and justification of the safety of the planned loadings. This is the responsibility of the Kharkiv core design center, which is under the control of Ukraine. “At ZNPP, only an “additional calculation” of separate indicators was carried out, which did not require possession of all the technology. The power plant does not have corresponding program products or corresponding technological documentation.”
Commentary by Bellona:
A third party illegally obtaining unsanctioned access to nuclear technical data is one of the numerous consequences of a military conflict between countries with nuclear facilities. The international community has encountered a serious problem which no one thought about or worked on during peace time, for some reason – the lack of “protocols of actions” in the case of war, in which nuclear facilities are seized or their security is put in danger. Bellona believes that this is one of the important issues which should be dealt with by the IAEA and other international nuclear institutions working on issues of the use of nuclear power and nuclear safety.
Furthermore, legally justified charges of representatives of Russia and Rosatom of violating U.S. laws may become the basis for applying further sanctions against individuals and the corporation as a whole.
Kazakhstan’s state uranium mining company Kazatomprom is preparing reserves for production as demand increases, including from Eastern European electricity producers which are trying to reduce their dependence on Russia, Bloomberg reports, citing Kazatomprom CEO Yerzhan Mukanov. As Mukanov says, some NPPs in Eastern Europe which previously received enriched uranium from Russia are looking for new contracts from 2025. The geopolitical uncertainty is changing flues of nuclear fuel, leading some electricity producers to create reserves. “We are preparing our reserves for production, so we will be able to respond to market requests,” said Mukanov in an interview in Astana.
Besides the expected changes on the uranium market connected with the war in Ukraine, the World Nuclear Association forecasts an increase of approximately 16% of world nuclear capacity and a related growth in demand for uranium of approximately one third. Kazakhstan, which produces more than 40% of the world’s uranium, plans to keep output steady at about 22,000 tons this year. “We forecast an increase in uranium demand, but we are not interested in an explosive growth of prices,” said Mukanov.
IAEA head Rafael Grossi by the IAEA Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) Bank during a visit on 18 April 2023 to the Republic of Kazakhstan. Photo: Kazatomprom.
At the same time, the increase of uranium prices in 2022 has already led to an increase in consolidated revenue for Kazatomprom by almost 45% in comparison with 2021, according to the company’s financial report for 2022. The increase in revenue was also caused by the weakening of Kazakhstan’s national currency. However, volumes of realization in 2021 and 2022 practically did not change.
Kazatomporm also plans to open a third export route this year, sending uranium through a Chinese port, Mukanov said. At present, the company supplies uranium through Russia (St. Petersburg port) and through the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR), which the company has used since 2018, and which passes through the Caspian and Black Seas and Georgia and Azerbaijan. In April, a batch of natural uranium concentrates was sent by this route for the energy company Societatea Natională “Nuclearelectrica” S.A. (“SNN”) in Romania.
Chief commercial officer of Kazatomprom Alisher Taizhanov reported in March that Kazatomporm was working on the possibility of receiving permissions for the transit of a larger quantity of uranium by the Trans-Caspian route. The company explained that the current quote for uranium transport through Azerbaijan was 4,000 tons and the Kazatomprom was discussing the possibility of increasing this with the Azerbaijani government.
Commentary by Bellona:
It should be noted that with the exception of fuel fabrication for China, Kazatomprom only produces and supplies natural uranium (yellow cake) and does not have facilities for uranium conversion and enrichment. In the March digest, we wrote that the majority of European countries (Czechia, Bulgaria, Finland, Ukraine) with VVER-1000 and VVER-440 reactors of Soviet design had in the past year signed contracts for fabrication and delivery of nuclear fuel with the Westinghouse company to replace Russian fuel. Ukraine also signed long-term contracts for deliveries of natural uranium and services for its conversion with the Canadian company Cameco. Bulgaria also signed a similar contract for the fifth unit of the Kozloduy NPP in April 2023. Thus, by 2025 the most likely potential purchaser of Kazakhstan uranium in Eastern Europe may be Czechia.
With the replacement of “Russian” uranium for Kazakhstan uranium, the risk of connection with Rosatom remains, as a number of producing companies in Kazakhstan are developed together by Kazatomprom and the affiliated company of Rosatom Uranium One. In 2021, Uranium One produced over 4,500 tons of uranium at 6 fields in Kazakhstan, in which it owns shares from 30% to 70%.
It also remains an open question where uranium conversion and enrichment will take place if the fuel suppliers are changed. In these fields, Russia’s position on the world market is more secure than in deliveries of natural uranium, and alternative capacity in the West must be created or expanded. The European companies Orano and Urenco announced plans to expand enrichment capacity in 2022. It is likely that the creation of an alliance between the UK the US, Canada, Japan, and France may be aimed at soliving these issues as well. It is likely that the creation of an alliance between the UK, the U.
UK, U.S., Canada, Japan, and France form alliance to displace Russia from the international nuclear energy market.
On 16 April in Sapporo, Japan, an alliance was announced between the UK, U.S., Canada and France, aimed at displacing Russia from the international nuclear energy market. The agreement between the five countries on using their civil nuclear power sectors to ensure a stable supply of nuclear fuel for existing and future reactors was reached at the Nuclear Energy Forum at the G7 after the G7 Ministers on climate, energy and environment completed a two-day meeting.
The statement by the five countries says that Russia’s war against Ukraine and the increasing impacts of climate change have fundamentally altered the global energy landscape and accelerated the need for collaboration between like-minded allies.
A G7 leaders’ communiqué in June 2022 announced the collective intent to reduce reliance on civil nuclear and related goods from Russia, including working to assist countries seeking to diversify their nuclear fuel supply chains.
The five countries announced that they had determined “potential areas of collaboration on nuclear fuels to support the stable supply of fuels for the operating reactor fleets of today, enable the development and deployment of fuels for the advanced reactors of tomorrow, and achieve reduced dependence on Russian supply chains”. Collaborating on strategic opportunities in the nuclear fuel cycle will support collective climate, energy security and economic resilience objectives and make it possible “to strengthen our domestic sectors and establish a level playing field to compete more effectively against predatory suppliers”.
Commentary by Bellona:
The political alliance of G7 countries, major consumers of nuclear power that play an important role in nuclear fuel supplies, may become an important foundation for cooperation and support of the national nuclear companies of these countries. This policy may ultimately have much greater impact on the division of the world nuclear market and the partial displacement of Russia than direct sanctions against Rosatom, as it will not only help to reduce cooperation with Russia, but also to develop alternative proposals.
The ministers of five countries present the statement on civil nuclear fuel cooperation (left to right): Jonathan Wilkinson, Minister of Natural Resources, Canada; Yasutoshi Nishimura, Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry, Japan; Jennifer Granholm, U.S. Secretary of Energy; Grant Shapps, Secretary of State for the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, UK; and Agnes Pannier-Runacher, Minister for Energy Transition, France).
Photo: World Nuclear Association
On 12 April, the USA levied the first sanctions directly affecting Rosatom’s projects in nuclear energy. The sanction list included several structures of the state corporation: Rusatom Overseas – a Rosatom company responsible for building centers of nuclear science and technology abroad, and also its president Yevgeny Pakermanov (characteristically, the Rusatom Overseas website was closed for reconstruction shortly afterwards); Vladimir Tochmash JSC and Kovrov Mechanical Plant PJSC (KMZ) – manufacturers of gas centrifuges for uranium enrichment, and also other special equipment. Additionally, the M.V. Protsenko Start Production Association came under sanctions (for activity in the Russian industrial defense complex) and NIKIMT-Atomstroy JSC, which develops and uses technologies for nuclear sites, dismantles decommissioned nuclear facilities, and is also a contractor at a number of Rosatom’s platforms abroad.
On 11 April, speaking in Moscow (1, 2) after talks with Rosatom chief executive Alexey Likhachev, Péter Szijjártó, the Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, stated that Hungary and Russia had agreed to make changes to the agreement on construction and financing of the Paks 2 NPP. Although sanctions have not yet been levied against nuclear energy by the EU, “it is clear that throughout Europe, in many cases there are efforts to block successful nuclear cooperation between Hungary and Russia through political means and unlawful decisions,” the minister said. Szijjártó noted that regardless of the war and the sanctions, the Paks contract had to be modified because of the technical and technological changes seen in the nine years since it was signed. “The sanctions complicate the situation, so it was necessary to find a legal basis by making changes to existing agreements,” he said. He added that Hungary and Russia had also agreed on changing the contract on construction and financing. As soon as these changes are finally drawn up (the details of amendments are not reported), they will be presented for approval to the European commission, minister Szijjártó said.
Meeting of Rosatom chief executive Alexey Likhachev and Hungarian minister for foreign affairs and trade Peter Szijjártó, 11 April, Moscow
Lithuania proposes to levy sanctions against Russia in the nuclear power sphere. This was reported by Reuters on 4 April, citing an unpublished political proposal of 17 March. Later, other countries of the Baltic and Poland joined this proposal, which was reported on 7 April by the Polish media RMF 24, which received a document sent to other EU countries on 30 March. The document proposes individual sanctions for members of the board of Rosatom, a ban on signing new contracts with this company, a ban on investments in Russian nuclear power, and also a ban on importing Russian enriched uranium. The four countries which have called for sanctions against Rosatom for months now propose numerous exceptions and transition periods, in particular for Hungary. For example, the exit from “operations, contracts or other agreements” with Rosatom will take place gradually, but not for more than two years. It was noted that this withdrawal will make it possible to unfreeze Russian companies’ assets and receive access to cash funds at this moment. On the other hand, Hungary, according to the proposals, may receive a nine-year transitional period to complete construction of the Paks NPP using Russian technology. As the publication notes, Hungary and France, and also Bulgaria, which heavily depend on Russian technology, have expressed their objections many times, or like France do not wish to end cooperation in this sphere.
The German government also favors EU sanctions against the Russian nuclear industry. “We have seen that Russia deliberately uses dependence in the energy sphere to apply pressure. So, the federal government has called on the European commission to levy sanctions against the civil nuclear sector as well. This should become a part of the next sanction package,” announced the Vice-Chancellor of Germany Robert Habeck in an interview with the dpa news agency published on 15 April.
On 13 April it was learned that Bangladesh and Russia had reached an agreement to use the yuan to pay a Russian loan of almost USD 12 billion, issued to Dhakka for construction of the Ruppur NPP. According to the new agreement, Bangladesh may pay Russia in yuan through any Chinese bank. Russia will receive payments through China’s Cross-Border Interbank Payment Systems (CIPS), a limited alternative to SWIFT for yuan-based payments. Bangladesh will pay USD 318 million in yuan. This is a debt incurred after payments on loans ceased in March 2022 after a loss of access to the global payment channel SWIFT due to Western sanctions.
On 18 April, Vedomosti reported that Rosatom’s subsidiary First Ore Mining Company (FOMC) would not be building a floating version of a mining and processing plant on Novaya Zemlya. This was mentioned at the forum “Arctic – regions” by company representative Natalya Potapova. Due to sanctions, Potapova said, FOMC was forced to develop a new concept for developing the field, according to which the plant will be built on the shore. The project depended on FOMC’s partners from Finland – the company Metso Outotec (supplier of equipment for the plant), Aker Arctic (barge design) Wartsila (providing a power station for the plant). As a source familiar with the details of the project told Vedomosti, the companies refused to work with Rosatom.
In another Finnish-Russian project that has been cancelled, the Hanhikivi NPP, arbitration court proceedings continue. Rosatom’s affiliated company Atomenergoprom through an international arbitration court demanded a loan of 920.5 million Euros to be returned, which was issued to the company Fennovoima, which commissioned the construction of Hanhikivi-1 NPP. It annulled the contract with Rosatom last year. As part of the arbitration court proceedings, the companies have already filed claims against one other totaling billions of Euros – Fennovoima for around 2 billion Euros, and Rosatom for 3 billion Euros.
Commentary by Bellona:
Sanctions against individual major structures of Rosatom from the USA, including Rusatom Overseas or NIKIMT-Atomstroy have great political and symbolic significance, but so far they have not affected the main fields of cooperation between the USA and Russia in the nuclear sphere. Ukraine and a number of its allied countries in Europe support more serious sanctions, for example limiting deliveries of uranium, reducing services for conversion and enrichment etc. The EU and the USA still depend strongly on Rosatom. In particular, for supplies of natural uranium – up to 20%, and in services for conversion and enrichment of uranium up to 30%. Evidently, the first sanctions levied by the USA against Rosatom should only be assessed as the start of the US sanctioning process against the Russian nuclear industry.
Financial and legal disputes surrounding annulled Finnish-Russian projects show how difficult it will be to back out of certain projects, even at the initial stages of their realization. Discussions surrounding the Hungarian project Paks-2 show that European diplomacy is looking for ways to satisfy the demands of all its members, and sooner or later this decision will be found. Even if ongoing projects are continued under certain exclusive conditions, strategic nuclear projects between Russia and Europe will be curtailed. Hungary, as a member of the EU and NATO, will be forced to make compromises and fulfill the conditions and requirements of these structures, as they have a determining influence on the economy, politics and security of the country.
The sanction annulment of contracts and agreements may most drastically affect French companies which for a long time were Rosatom’s main business and ideological partners. But on the other hand, it is impossible to remain outside processes of geopolitics which are directed against an aggressor waging war. So, all companies, including French ones, will be forced to look for new possibilities and resources for working in the field of nuclear power, limiting or ending their contracts with Rosatom.
At the Akkuyu NPP under construction in Turkey, on 27 April a ceremony was held to mark the delivery of the first batch of nuclear fuel for the first nuclear power plant in Turkey. Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation, and Recep Erdoğan, President of the Republic of Turkey, took part in the ceremony via videoconference, Rafael Grossi, Director General of the IAEA, Fatih Dönmez, Minister of Energy and Natural Resources of Turkey, Alexey Likhachev, Director General of Rosatom attended the event. Fuel assemblies for the first power unit of the Akkuyu NPP arrived at the fresh fuel storage facility, where they will be stored until the unit is ready for loading and the first criticality. According to Rosatom director Alexey Likhachev, start-up of the reactor of the first power unit of the Akkuyu NPP is scheduled for 2024.
On 5 April, the Department for Nuclear and Radiation Safety of the Ministry for Emergency Situation of the Republic of Belarus (Gosatomnadzor) issued permission to commence the “Energy startup” stage at power unit №2 of BelNPP, and on 10 April one of the energy startup operations was completed – a test launch of a turbo generator of a power unit for a reactor capacity of 40% of the nominal capacity. The rotors of the turbo generator were switched to nominal rotation on a blank run without connecting the unit to the grid. The second power unit of the BelNPP is planned to be put into industrial operation before the end of 2023. On 16 April, Belarusian deputies ratified an agreement with Russia on spent nuclear fuel. The document establishes the mechanism for transporting irradiated fuel assemblies of nuclear reactors to Russia for temporary storage, with subsequent processing and separation of valuable materials, including for nuclear energy, and also the return of radioactive waste to Belarus.
On 21 April at Atommash – the production site of the company AEM-technology (part of the machine-building division of Rosatom – Atomenergomash), two nuclear reactor vessels and eight steam generators were dispatched. The equipment is intended for a power unit at the Kuandkulam NPP (India) and the power unit at the Tianwan NPP (China), which are equipped according to Russian projects.
Credit: Atomenergomash Rosatom
VVER-1200 reactor vessel for the seventh power unit of the Tianwan NPP
Photo: Atomenergomash Rosatom
On 7 April, the Minister of Energy of Ukraine German Galushchenko signed a document to begin the process of resuming export of electricity, under conditions of a surplus of generated power. “The Ukrainian power system has been working for almost two months without restrictions on consumers with a supply of capacity… The next step is to open export of electricity, which will make it possible to attract an additional financial resource for necessary restoration of destroyed and repair of damaged power infrastructure,” Galushchenko said.
The capacity permitted for export by the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity (ENTSO-E) is 400 MW. However, actual volumes of export may vary depending on the time and the market situation. Galushchenko has emphasized the fact that meeting the electricity needs for Ukrainian consumers is a priority. So, electricity export may be suspended if the situation changes.
On 17 April, Ukrenergo reported that thanks to a sufficient reserve of capacity, export of electricity to Slovakia had begun (200 MW), and export is continuing to Poland (75 MW) and Moldova (99-134 MW at different hours). Insignificant import also continues from Slovakia (2-4 MW at different hours).
The Energy Ministry stated that Ukraine exported electricity to Moldova and EU countries from June to 11 October 2022. During this period 2.6 billion kWh were realized.
Commentary by Bellona:
From October 2022, the Russian authorities began making attempts to destroy Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, with mass missile attacks. The destruction of boiler and thermal power stations and key substations, ruptures to electricity grids and reduced possibilities for grid management ultimately affected the work of Ukraine NPPs. Emergency shutdowns took place or capacities were reduced at the power units at all NPPs, even those far from the front line – the Rivne, Khmelnitsky and South Ukraine NPPs. And the power supply from external grids required for the cooling system of the Zaporizhzhia NPP was cut off several times. Attacks on the energy infrastructure of the country also caused clear risks to incidents and emergencies at nuclear sites.
We hope that the start of electricity export by Ukraine really does show the confidence of the energy workers of the country in the relative reliability of the present energy system and its resilience to new attacks, for confidence in a decrease in probability of new attacks may indirectly show an improvement in the situation of risks for functioning NPPs.
On 4 April, the Head of the State Agency of Ukraine on Exclusion Zone Management (Chernobyl), Yevhen Kramarenko, reported that Ukraine had received 15 million Euros from foreign donors for restoring the Chernobyl zone. According to the plan, the entire territory will be cleared of mines, computer and office equipment, infrastructure and equipment for treating radioactive materials will be restored. Kramarenko said that the plan for restoring the zone is assessed at 225 million Euros, although damage from occupation comes to around 100 million Euros. This is because not only normal functioning will be restored, but the work of the Chernobyl NPP will be improved and a science hub will be created on the exclusion zone territory. Among the main donors are the European Commission, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the U.S. Department of Energy, Norway, the UK, Germany and France.
On 11 April, the Canadian company Cameco and Energoatom signed a third agreement which was the last necessary step for realizing a program to use Ukrainian uranium in the production of nuclear fuel for Ukrainian NPPs. This is the “agreement for weighing, sampling, storage, analysis and transportation of uranium oxide concentrate” (UOC) produced by Se SkhidGZK”. We wrote about the two agreements signed in the previous month in the March digest.
Energoatom President Petro Kotin and Cameco’s president and CEO Tim Gitzel
On 21 April, with the end of the heating season at Energodar, the sixth power unit of the ZNPP was put into cold shutdown state. Representatives of the IAEA mission at the ZNPP reported that a test was conducted to assess the integrity of the cladding on the nuclear fuel, which showed that the fuel cladding was intact. The transition to cold shutdown will enable ZNPP to perform inspections on the primary and secondary cooling circuits and pumps. The two reactors of units № 5 and 6, which were recently in hot shut down, were used to provide steam and heating for the ZNPP, and also heating for the nearby town of Energodar. Unit 5 remains in hot shutdown to provide hot water and steam for the site.
The statement by the IAEA general director of 21 April describes the situation with the plant’s maintenance capability. The plant management informed IAEA experts that the scope of maintenance performed during outages of all units in 2022 was reduced compared to the planned scope due to reduced maintenance staff, absence of external contractors who perform a significant part of the work, and a lack of spare parts needed for the maintenance, including critical components. ZNPP currently has only about a quarter of its regular maintenance staff available.
Throughout the entire month, the IAEA experts present at the ZNPP have heard shelling, and they were told to take shelter at the site on two occasions because of potential danger caused by the warfare in the region, according to statement by Grossi on 21 and 28 April. Additionally, near the plant itself two landmine explosions occurred outside its perimeter fence, the first on 8 April and another four days later.
“I saw clear indications of military preparations in the area when I visited the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant just over three weeks ago. Since then, our experts at the site have frequently reported about hearing detonations, at times suggesting intense shelling not far from the site. I’m deeply concerned about the situation at the plant,” Grossi said.
On 27 April, the latest rotation took place of the group of agency representatives at the ZNPP. This is the eighth mission so far.
The Defense Intelligence update from the UK Ministry of Defense on the situation in Ukraine for 27 April states that judging from satellite images, Russian forces established sandbag fighting positions on the roofs of several of the six reactor buildings at the ZNPP. Russia has controlled ZNPP since March 2022. However, this is the first indication of the actual reactor buildings being integrated in tactical defense planning. The move highly likely increases the chances of damage to ZNPP safety systems if fighting takes place around ZNPP. However direct catastrophic damage to the reactors is unlikely under most plausible scenarios involving infantry weapons because the structures are very heavily reinforced.
Zaporizhzhia NPP: Russia sandbag defense position on reactor buildings
Photo: UK Ministry of Defense
On 7 April the UK newspaper The Times published an article stating that Ukrainian soldiers had made an attempt in the autumn of 2022 to liberate the Zaporizhzhia NPP captured by Russian troops, but failed. “Kyiv has never acknowledged attacking Europe’s largest nuclear power station, but Ukrainian special forces, military intelligence and navy personnel involved have revealed to The Times details of the highly dangerous operation to recover the site,” the article said.
It was reported that on 19 October 2022, nearly 600 elite troops on 30 vessels tried to land near ZNPP. “The idea was that this would be an infantry-only battle. They wouldn’t be able to use artillery against us, as this is a nuclear plant,” the Times quoted a Ukrainian officer involved. However, he said, Russian troops “built a very dense defense, they mined everything”. “When we were approaching, they even pulled up tanks and artillery and started firing at us right on the water,” the officer said. As a result, only a small group of attackers was able to reach the shore. They entered into a three-hour shooting battle with the Russian army on the outskirts of Energodar, but then were forced to retreat, the Times writes. A U.S. defense source confirmed that “time-sensitive” intelligence was provided to Ukrainian special forces, although they declined to give specific details.
Head of Energoatom Petro Kotin told the Times about the danger of such actions: “If our army can advance south towards Crimea, toward Melitopol, this is the only option — no direct shelling of the plant, no direct advance on the territory of the plant with direct actions against the Russians. It is very dangerous to do such things near nuclear material. Any damage will bring radiation to the people and to the whole world.”
It should be noted that Ukraine attempted to land a force in Energodar after the successful counterattack in the Kharkiv Oblast in the east of the country, and in the period of the active counterattack and liberation of extensive territories in the Kherson Oblast, just tens of kilometers downstream from the plant on the Dnipro River. The landing may have been part of this major liberation plan.
In October 2022, Russian media wrote about this attempt to take back control of the Zaporizhzhia NPP, but the Ukrainian authorities denied it.
Commentary by Bellona:
Attempts of an armed capture of nuclear sites, waging war on their territory or in direct proximity to them with the use of heavy artillery is extremely dangerous, and unacceptable. The attempt to liberate the NPP even by the special forces and light weapons and through capturing sites in the neighboring town of Energodar till carries the risk of activating warfare near the NPP and the subsequent transformation of the plant into a reinforced military site (which we currently observe) in the case of failure.
Undoubtedly, the present threat to nuclear sites of Ukraine, and particularly the Zaporizhzhia NPP, arose because of the full-scale military aggression by Russia. The ZNPP was illegally captured by Russia, which bears full responsibility for possible incidents at this site. However, to minimalize risks of nuclear and radiation incidents, it is important that the future liberation of the captured nuclear plant and its return to its legal owner, Ukraine, takes place without direct military clashes on its territory. This is especially relevant in the light of the counterattack by Ukraine that is expected in the coming weeks, which may also affect the region of the ZNPP.
- The report “Nuclear Security During Armed Conflicts: Lessons from Ukraine” by Vitaly Fedchenko, senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), concerning security issues of NPPs during armed conflicts, with a series of recommendations.
- The report “Dangerous Targets: Civilian Nuclear Infrastructure and the War in Ukraine. Preliminary Lessons for Safety and Security in War Zones” by researchers Darya Dolzikova and Jack Watling from the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies (RUSI, UK). A survey of the risks for Ukrainian nuclear power plants, based on interviews with Ukrainian personnel, military and official figures responsible for the operation, protection and safety of Ukraine’s nuclear infrastructure.
- The report from the Ukrainian think tank DiXi Group ”‘Nuclear’ Sanctions: No Easy Solutions”, analyzing the dependence of the international energy sector on the Russian nuclear corporation Rosatom.
- The working paper Action Plan 2.0. Strengthening Sanctions against the Russian Federation by the international work group on sanctions against Russia (the McFaul-Yermak group) on the need to increase sanction pressure on Russia. Among other things, this document calls for sanctions against Rosatom, a detailed analysis of which is given in a separate document published in October last year.
- The article “How Chinese military aid to Russia could lead to a strategic reversal of nuclear force” published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, on the prospects of military cooperation between Russia and China in the nuclear sphere. We partially analyzed this topic in the previous digest .
- The article “This is all that will remain afterwards” with a survey of the agreement between Russia and the USA in the nuclear sphere, which still remains in force, by Kommersant newspaper with comments from experts.