Russian attacks test international standards

June 2022
By Kelsey Davenport

Russia’s recent attacks on nuclear sites in Ukraine have raised concerns about the strength of international humanitarian law, which prohibits targeting nuclear power plants if the attack would cause serious harm to civilian populations. Russia’s decision to flout this norm also increases the possibility of states targeting nuclear infrastructure in the future.

Since invading Ukraine, Russia briefly occupied and halted operations at Chernobyl, the site of the 1986 reactor meltdown, and still controls the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, which comprises six reactors.

When Russian forces attacked Zaporizhzhya in early March, they fired heavy weapons at reactor buildings and a facility used to store nuclear waste. Although the reactors and spent fuel are housed in hardened structures to withstand attack, the strikes could have caused a reactor meltdown or radioactive release by disrupting operations and support systems that are more vulnerable to damage.

The possibility of a radioactive release causing serious harm to civilian populations, particularly in the case of the Zaporizhzhya attack, suggests that Russia’s actions could violate the 1977 protocols to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which the Committee International Red Cross described as the basis of humanitarian law.

Protocol I of the Geneva Convention protects against the targeting of “installations containing dangerous forces”, including “nuclear power stations… if such an attack could result in the release of dangerous forces and cause serious casualties among the civilian population” . It also prohibits attacks on military objectives “located on or near” such installations if such an attack would cause serious harm to the civilian population.

Although Russia joined Protocol 1 in 1992, President Vladimir Putin withdrew in 2019. But Russia is still a party to Protocol II, which reiterates a ban on attacking nuclear power plants if it would cause serious harm. harm to civilians.

Although the international community has widely condemned Moscow’s targeting of nuclear facilities, calls for Russia to cease its military activities around Ukrainian nuclear infrastructure do not appear to have had a dampening effect on Russian actions.

When Russian military forces first occupied Chernobyl, the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) passed a resolution urging Russia to “immediately cease all actions against” Chernobyl and “any another nuclear facility in Ukraine”. The March 3 resolution also urged Russia to allow Ukraine to retain full control over nuclear sites. The following day, Russia attacked the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant and continues to occupy the facility.

UN Under-Secretary-General Rosemary DiCarlo called the attack “contrary to international humanitarian law” and “highly irresponsible” during a March 4 Security Council meeting.

Russia’s refusal to adhere to the standard set by the protocols of the Geneva Conventions and to heed the broad international calls to cease attacks on nuclear facilities suggests that Ukraine’s nuclear infrastructure will remain a target and that other states might consider attacking or occupying nuclear sites in future conflicts to advance military objectives.

Other States with nuclear programs are preparing for this risk. For example, the week after Russia attacked Zaporizhzhya, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced that his government would examine whether the existing defenses at his country’s nuclear power plants were sufficient. The announcement came after Fukui Governor Tatsuji Sugimoto requested additional defense forces for the prefecture, which includes several nuclear power plants.

Nuclear security may need to evolve to address this emerging risk as past efforts have largely focused on securing facilities against acts of terrorism and theft of nuclear materials. Sigfried Hecker, former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, noted in an April 21 interview with the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists that after the September 11 attacks, “concerns were focused on the prevention of nuclear terrorism by non-state actors”. He called the attack on Zaporizhzhya “an act of state-sponsored terrorism”. Although Russia and the United States have cooperated to fight global nuclear terrorism, “now we have to worry about Russia committing nuclear or radiological terrorism,” he said.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference in August could be a forum to begin discussions on strengthening the norm against the targeting of nuclear facilities and the condemnation of state-sponsored attacks on such facilities. . But the conference’s outcome document must be approved by consensus, so Russia is unlikely to accept language critical of its actions.

Russia’s occupation of the Zaporizhzhya site raises new concerns about the security, safety and liability of the nuclear materials there and the well-being of the workers, who must continue to operate the plant under stress of occupation.

IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said on May 11 that conducting safeguards activities at the site was “difficult, due to the presence of Russian forces” and nuclear personnel. He described the situation as “unsustainable” and expressed the hope that he would soon be able to visit the establishment.

The IAEA is also working with Ukraine to restore safeguards and monitoring at Chernobyl after Russian forces withdrew in late March.

Grossi confirmed on May 4 that “data from all unattended surveillance systems installed at [Chernobyl] has now been fully recovered,” but said on May 6 that there was “still a long way to go to restore Chernobyl to normal functioning.”

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