Military attack against civilian nuclear power plants by Russian forces have raised serious safety concern over nuclear facilities worldwide. Apparently, it is a violation of international law and those actions should be stopped immediately.
But, we also need to consider possible short- and medium-term implications of this incident for global nuclear non-proliferation, nuclear security and safety. The following are some important implications and possible actions to take.
Enhancing legal protection of nuclear facilities: Protocol Additional to Geneva Convention Article 56 has been widely quoted as one of the few examples to prohibit such violent actions.
According to Article 56, along with dams and dikes, “nuclear electrical generation stations shall not be made the object of attack.” It should be noted that such protection “shall cease if it is used for other than its normal function and in regular, significant and direct support of military operations.”
So it is critically important that nuclear power plants are used exclusively for peaceful purposes and under international safeguards. However, it is also important to point out that the above article is not applicable to non-power generating facilities, such as research reactors or, more significantly, fuel cycle facilities, including uranium enrichment, reprocessing facilities and spent fuel storage facilities.
In particular the latter two facilities could release substantial radioactivity, if attacked. Aware of this fact, in 1987 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) General Conference adopted a resolution regarding protection of nuclear installations against armed attacks.
While this resolution has established an international norm among IAEA members, it certainly lacks enforcing power. It is important thus that legal protection of nuclear facilities against military attacks be enhanced to include non-power generation facilities, especially reprocessing plant and fuel-storage facilities.
Enhancing nuclear security, especially over sensitive facilities and materials: While nuclear security measures do not assume military attacks, there are some important lessons learned from the Ukrainian nuclear crisis. Russia attacked and captured nuclear facilities, claiming that Ukraine tried to develop nuclear weapons despite the fact that there is no evidence for such claim.
Furthermore, Ukraine does not have any uranium enrichment or reprocessing facilities or fissile materials, namely highly enriched uranium or plutonium. It is possible that heavily armed terrorists could attack or capture a nuclear facility. If such an attack happened in a country with those sensitive facilities and fissile materials, its potential risk could be much worse.
It may be necessary to enhance nuclear security measures against such attacks especially for sensitive nuclear facilities and materials. It is also important that stockpiles of such materials should be minimized and eliminated as soon as possible.
Preparing for supply disruption of nuclear fuel and technology: Russia is a major supplier of uranium enrichment services (about 30 percent of the global market) as well as reactors, and also provides a service to accept spent fuel from the reactors it exports. Supply disruption by Russia could cause a serious impact on the global nuclear industry market.
Although nuclear reactors could sustain operation without a new fuel supply for a certain period of time (typically up to one year or so) and reactor operators often have a fuel stockpile of one or two years, it is important to prepare for possible long-term interruption of nuclear fuel supply and other services provided by Russia.
In particular, countries that import nuclear reactors from Russia have much higher dependence on Russia. Western countries with less dependence on Russia could help to provide an alternative fuel supply or possible maintenance services. Stockpiling of natural and enriched uranium could be an effective measure against future supply disruptions.
Re-examining nuclear exports: According to the IAEA Power Reactor Information Systems, as of March 2022, 51 reactors are now under construction in 17 countries. Excluding those countries that manufacture their own nuclear reactors (China, Republic of Korea, India, Russia, Japan, the United States and France), the rest (Turkey, the United Kingdom, United Arab Emirates, Bangladesh, Ukraine, Brazil, Belarus, Iran, Slovakia and Argentina) are the countries that import reactors.
Considering the potential risk that nuclear reactors could be involved in military conflicts, it would be wise not to export nuclear reactors to countries in regions where potential military conflicts are possible. As well, bilateral cooperation agreements should clarify the condition that civilian nuclear facilities should not be attacked by military forces.
All countries that own nuclear facilities, especially sensitive facilities and fissile materials, and countries that are planning to introduce nuclear power and considering exporting nuclear reactors should re-examine the potential risks of nuclear power. At the same time, the international community also must consider strengthening the international law to protect nuclear facilities where possible military conflicts could arise.
Dr. Tatsujiro Suzuki is vice director at the Research Center for Nuclear Weapons Abolition, Nagasaki University (RECNA). He served as vice chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission cabinet office from 2010 to 2014. He is also a member of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (APLN). His article is published in cooperation with the APLN (www.apln.network).
This article was published in The Korea Times on 30 March 2022 as part of a dedicated, regular Korea Times column with analysis by APLN members on global issues. You can find the original post here.
(Image Credit: iStock, Mariia Demchenko)