Nuclear weapons: Review of non-proliferation treaty ends without consensus amid fears over Zaporizhzhia power plant

Sophie CameronFriday 9 September 2022

Repeated shelling at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which began in mid-August, has greatly intensified fears of nuclear disaster. The Zaporizhzhia plant – one of the world’s largest nuclear stations – fell to Russian military forces soon after Russia invaded Ukraine in February.

Rafael Mariano Grossi, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) – the UN body responsible for overseeing the civil nuclear industry – has expressed grave concern over the situation. He issued a statement in late August explaining that the shelling ‘underlines the risk of a potential nuclear accident’ at the power plant, which continues to be operated by Ukrainian staff.

‘Any conflict over land holding nuclear plants carries risks of a disaster. In times of war opposing states have to agree what is off limits, as an attack upon a nuclear facility of one will lead to a response attack by the other with similar if not greater consequences,’ explains Steven Kay QC, Member of the IBA War Crimes Committee Advisory Board and Head of Chambers at 9 Bedford Row in London. ‘The IAEA and the UN Security Council has to become involved to prevent the spread of the conflict to other states of radiation that is not an accidental outage.’

The IAEA successfully led a support and assistance mission to the plant at the end of August, following international calls for access, where the damage to and safety of the site was assessed. Grossi confirmed in early September that the ‘physical integrity’ of the station has been ‘violated’ and that two IAEA experts will remain at the plant to monitor the situation.

The global Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and other treaties limiting the spread of nuclear weapons give the IAEA, as the nuclear inspectorate, safeguarding powers including the ability to verify that a state is abiding by its international commitments not to deploy programmes for nuclear weapons purposes.

The IAEA followed its visit with a report about the safety, security and safeguards situation in Ukraine, including the findings from the mission to Zaporizhzhia, in which it expressed concern about the level of stress staff at the plant are experiencing. It’s hoped that a forensic evaluation will also be possible to ascertain and hold those responsible for the attacks on the nuclear power plant accountable for the damage.

Despite the general support for the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, there is a lack of leadership and a lack of action in terms of disarmament objectives

Toby Cadman
Communications Officer, IBA War Crimes Committee

Ukraine is particularly aware of the consequences of an explosion at a nuclear power plant, having experienced the world’s worst nuclear power accident at Chernobyl in the late 1980s, which led to radioactive material being spread across Europe.

‘The fighting near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant […] has fuelled alarm in that it would result in the risk of a fatal nuclear calamity. In fact, it has given rise to warnings of an [event] akin to Chernobyl, although experts have emphasised that a similar replication of the 1986 disaster is effectively impossible,’ explains Toby Cadman, Communications Officer of the IBA War Crimes Committee and Joint Head of Chambers at London-based Guernica 37.

Cadman says the solution is for Russia to cease all military operations and return full control of the Zaporizhzhia plant to Ukraine – a requirement, he says, under international humanitarian law, which prohibits attacks against civilian targets and requires ‘particular care’ around nuclear power stations.

The international community has been urging Russia to create a demilitarised zone around the Zaporizhzhia facility. UN Secretary-General António Guterres issued a statement in early September calling for the withdrawal of all military personnel from the plant and stating that an ‘urgent agreement is needed at a technical level on a safe perimeter of demilitarisation to ensure the safety of the area’.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has given support to these proposals. Russia has not responded directly to the proposal for a demilitarised zone.

Since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and given the Russian government’s repeated threats to use all means at its disposal to protect Russian interests against anyone who would endeavour to interfere, fears of a possible nuclear conflict have been raised to a level not experienced since the post-Cold War era began, explains Cadman. ‘The possibility of a military conflict between Russia and NATO forces has indeed intensified risks of the deployment of nuclear weapons’, he says.

Russian nuclear doctrine stipulates that nuclear weapons can be deployed in response to an attack with weapons of mass destruction or if a conventional war threatens the ‘very existence of the State’. If Russia perceives that an attack is imminent, it’s possible it could order the deployment of such weapons.

Cadman says that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threats are a violation of Article II of the 1973 bilateral Agreement on the Prevention of Nuclear War, by which the US and Russia pledged to ‘refrain from the threat or use of force against the other Party, against the allies of the other Party and against other countries, in circumstances which may endanger international peace and security’.

The tenth Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which took place throughout August, concluded without reaching agreement on substantive conclusions and recommendations due to Russia’s opposition to a summary document presented by the Conference’s presidency. In particular, Russia objected to a clause about control over the Zaporizhzhia power plant, and its delegate suggested other countries had also voiced concerns about the draft outcome document.

‘Such a failure defeats every possible hope of maintaining an arms control regime’, says Cadman. ‘At such a critical time, despite the general support for the Treaty, there is a lack of leadership and a lack of action in terms of disarmament objectives. Therefore, the risks remain high due to this failure to reach an agreement.’

Image credit: Cooling towers of Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station near the city Enerhodar, Ukraine. ihorbondarenko/AdobeStock.com

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