Humanity has been dodging nuclear bullets since 1945. With a couple of notable exceptions, catastrophic nuclear accidents or nuclear detonations have been avoided. This has been as much by luck, as by design. Nuclear energy and nuclear weapons are still at risk of human error. In a field that demands perfection or at least something close to it, there have been numerous instances of near meltdowns and accidental detonations. Luck as much as planning has been a long-term strategy the world has come to rely upon for avoiding nuclear catastrophe. While careful planning can mitigate the risk of disaster, luck is notoriously fickle. It will eventually run out. Witness the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. There have been many other accidents regarding nuclear materials that never get reported.
Anyone who wants to understand how close civilization has come to a self-induced apocalypse should read Eric Schlosser’s alarming investigation of nuclear weapons accidents, “Command and Control, Nuclear Weapons, The Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety.” The book makes for a terrifying read, delineating in great narrative detail the numerous near misses where luck played a prominent role in staving off nuclear weapons disasters. The general public has little knowledge of these incidents, whether that is because of state secretiveness, ignorance, fear or a combination of all three. The subject of nuclear accidents has become more than an abstraction. The Ukraine-Russia war has consistently threatened to unleash the destructive power of the atomic age on a world that naively believes that since the Cold War ended, there is little reason for concern.
Looming threat – Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant
Nuclear Terrorism – Fear Factors
The other day I was doing a search for articles on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons in The Economist archives. I was looking to refresh my memory about Pakistan’s entry into the nuclear age. Prior to the present situation in Ukraine, Pakistan’s ascension into the ranks of nuclear armed states was one of the few times since the Cold War ended that the risk of a nuclear weapon being detonated in warfare was not an abstraction. Along with India, which also went nuclear, the risk of a nuclear exchange heightened considerably. I was drawn by the title of one article, “The Most Dangerous Place on Earth” which was written in 1999. It concerned the threat of a nuclear conflict between Pakistan and India. Reading the article, I was struck by the potential for disaster, but these were just hypotheticals at the time. Thankfully, they still are today.
If another such article was written with the same title today, “The Most Dangerous Place on Earth” would be the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in southern Ukraine. Russia’s occupation of the plant has given new meaning to the term, “nuclear terrorism.” Such a phrase was defined as terrorists getting a dirty bomb or some other kind of primitive nuclear device and detonating it. Post 9/11 the fear of this occurring was palpable. Those days now seem like ancient history. Rather than wargaming hypothetical situations, the world has been dealing with a real nuclear terrorism situation since March. The Russian forces occupying the Zaporizhzhia have taken key Ukrainian personnel and/or their family members hostage, tortured workers and taken some of them away. Several of them have not been seen since they were detained. The Russian have also parked vehicles in turbine rooms, situated military equipment all around the facility, and shelled the plant on numerous occasions. This has left Zaporizhzhia in dire condition which increasing the odds of a catastrophic incident to an unprecedented level.
Keeping watch – Image showing Russian military equipment beside Reactor Five at Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (Credit: Defence Intelligence)
Tinder Box – An Explosive Story
Ironically, for media that is always seeks news coverage of the next disaster, the newest “Most Dangerous Place on Earth” has become something of an afterthought as the war has continued. The shelling of Zaporizhzhia is now so common that rather than a headline, it warrants a mere mention. Only in cases where the shelling is particularly intense are concerns heightened. This happened nine days ago when ten explosions shook the facility. These were targeted blasts aimed at infrastructure for electricity production. This raised awareness and did nothing to change the situation. This is not only lamentable, but also understates seriousness of the issue. An explosion or meltdown at Zaporizhzhia would have consequences far beyond Ukraine. People living in eastern and central Europe, the near east and Russia would all be threatened with exposure to high doses of radiation. The area in and around the facility could be turned into Ukraine’s second exclusion zone (Chernobyl is the first). This would produce new waves of refugees, rock the world economy, and provide a terrifying precedent for the future.
Consequences for the release of radiation at Zaporizhzhia are so dire that they cannot be overstated. Diplomacy and International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors have not been able to convince the Russians to stop shelling the facility or vacated it. Instead, they blame the Ukrainians. Only in the upside-down world of Kremlin logic would it make any sense for the Ukrainians to attack their own nuclear power plant. The Kremlin seeks to distract from the real issue. Namely, that Russian forces are sitting on a tinder box with a book of matches If humanity manages to sidestep disaster at Zaporizhzhia it will be a minor miracle. The situation has been worsening for months. Fortunately, there may be reason for optimism due to recent developments.
End game – Russian soldiers at Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant
A Grip on Power — Defensible Positions
Russia has been in retreat for the past several months in eastern and southern Ukraine. This may also be the case in Zaporizhzhia very soon. Ukrainian officials spoke this week about reports from locals that the Russians are packing up their equipment and stealing anything of value from the facility. Furthermore, highly influential Russian military bloggers have been discussing a potential retreat from Zaporizhzhia. This could be disinformation, or it could be just what the Kremlin has ordered. The retreat from Kherson city a couple of weeks ago led to Russian forces narrowing their front in southern Ukraine. They have been moving into more defensible positions that will be easier to hold throughout the winter. Consolidating forces in a smaller area is necessary for an army that has consistently underperformed on the battlefield. Terror tactics such as those used at Zaporizhzhia have been the Russian military’s modus operandi for far too long. Their occupation of Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant might or might not be coming to an end. If so, humanity has dodged another bullet. That is until the next time.