As international nuclear inspectors head toward Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia power plant, they face a situation that few had ever envisioned: a vast nuclear power plant that could be deliberately turned into a potential dirty bomb, with Russia using it to intimidate its enemy and the world.
At a minimum, President Vladimir V. Putin has found a way to employ the civilian facility as a shield for his troops, who are occupying the facility and betting Ukraine will not take the risk of shelling it and triggering the release of a cloud of radiation. But at times, Mr. Putin also appears to have found a way to employ the plant as something of a strategic auxiliary to his nuclear arsenal.
Over the past six months, Mr. Putin has repeatedly invoked the potential for nuclear escalation, even if some of his aides have later dismissed the possibility. Early in the war, the Russian leader issued a series of thinly veiled nuclear threats, at one point ordering his aides, on television, to put his nuclear forces on alert. There is no evidence that they actually did so, but his message got across, a crude effort to intimidate Ukraine’s leaders and warn the West to stay out of the conflict.
Now, in the assessment of some American intelligence officials and policymakers, who declined to speak on the record about the standoff at Europe’s largest nuclear plant, Mr. Putin is using the threat of disaster at the vast complex along the Dnieper River for similar purposes.
The result is that Zaporizhzhia is not only prompting fear of a disaster, but it is also coming to describe a new kind of nuclear threat.
“The idea that a nuclear power plant would be caught in a conflict is something we have thought about a lot before, and it’s why the plants were designed to withstand attack,’’ said Gary Samore, who was the lead nuclear adviser on the National Security Council to Presidents Clinton and Obama. “But the idea that a plant would be used as a shield for forces occupying a plant, or that someone like Putin would use the risk of attacks or accident as a form of intimidation — I don’t think that was something we fully contemplated.”
On Tuesday it was still unclear whether the inspection team, led by Rafael Mariano Grossi, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, would even make it through the battle lines to assess the plant’s safety. Mr. Grossi, a longtime veteran of the agency who returned in 2019 thinking his biggest challenges would focus on Iran, met with President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv, in hopes of finding safe passage to the plant with more than a dozen inspectors, chosen for different specialties in the operation of nuclear power plants.
The international agency was created in 1957 as an arm of the United Nations. Its primary job is to verify that nuclear material intended for civilian use does not get diverted to weapons programs — which made it a key player in monitoring Iraq’s activities under Saddam Hussein and, now, Iran’s nuclear progress. (North Korea long ago banned its inspectors.)
But Mr. Grossi has acknowledged that the agency’s powers were never designed for a challenge like the situation at Zaporizhzhia. The I.A.E.A. has the authority to raise the alarm if it sees evidence that nuclear fuel is being diverted to weapons use, and to help train workers about safety protocols, but it has no mandate to deal with the current threat: the war raging on the perimeter of the plant and six nuclear reactors that are essentially being used to gain battlefield advantage.
Mr. Grossi’s agency cannot order the creation of a demilitarized zone around the plant, or an end to shelling. It does not have the expertise or intelligence units to come to a determination over whose forces are responsible for the attacks. (The Russians say that the shelling near the plant is coming from Ukrainian forces, and Ukraine’s government insists that Russian forces are responsible. At a briefing on Monday, John F. Kirby, the national security spokesman at the White House, said the United States had not come to a determination.)
Mr. Kirby called for a “controlled shutdown of the operation of the nuclear reactors,” since their connection to Ukraine’s power grid has been episodic at best. But doing so would cut Ukraine off from a crucial supply of electricity. Before the war, the plant’s six reactors produced roughly a fifth of all the power in Ukraine and roughly half of its nuclear-generated power, freeing it from dependence on Russia.
The White House’s hope is that a shutdown would reduce the chances of a cataclysmic meltdown, even if it would not eliminate the risks entirely. But the Ukrainians appear to be balking, and the Russians have ignored demands that their military forces be withdrawn from the plant. “Proposals on a demilitarized zone around the Zaporizhzhia plant are unacceptable,” Ivan Nechaev of the Russian foreign ministry said at a briefing two weeks ago, according to the Interfax news agency in Russia. “Their implementation will make the plant even more vulnerable.”
In an interview on Tuesday, Mykhailo Podolyak, an aide to Mr. Zelensky of Ukraine, said he was hopeful that monitors would reach the plant “one way or another.”
He contended that Russian forces were firing artillery along routes that the inspectors might use to get to the plant. “The Russians are trying to put some psychological pressure on the delegation, so they panic” and cancel the visit, Mr. Podolyak said.
The Russians did not comment on the claim, but for weeks the inspections have been held up because of an argument over whether the inspectors would traverse Ukrainian or Russian territory to get to the plant — an issue complicated by Ukraine’s desire to avoid giving legitimacy to the Russian occupation.
Zaporizhzhia is hardly the first nuclear plant to be at the center of a conflict. Israel bombed the Osirak reactor in Iraq in 1981, and a North Korean-built plant in Syria in 2007, to stop both nations from getting fuel to build nuclear weapons. But both facilities were under construction and did not yet have nuclear fuel inside, so the military action posed no radiation risk.
The United States and Israel, working together, conducted destructive cyberattacks on Iran’s Natanz nuclear enrichment site more than a decade ago, in a secret operation intended to stop Tehran from moving toward a weapon. But there was no risk of a nuclear explosion, and relatively little of a widespread radiation leak, because the centrifuges churning out low-enriched uranium were deep underground.
What is happening in Ukraine is different, many experts say. Several of the reactors are operating. Mr. Putin’s forces, inside the fence of the plant, have a safe haven to fire on their Ukrainian adversaries, and could blame Ukraine if return fire triggers an accident.
Of course, if there is an accident, it is hard to say who would be hit worse: Russia or Ukraine. That may depend on which way the wind blows. But the fact that the Russians are occupying the plant provides Mr. Putin with a new way to intimidate without resorting to using one of his tactical nuclear weapons. And he has the option of blaming the other side.
In short, he has blurred the once-sharp distinction between nuclear weapons and civilian nuclear facilities. That dividing line goes back nearly 70 years, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower first laid out the “Atoms for Peace” bargain, in which nuclear weapons would be possessed by only a handful of states, and the recipients of nuclear aid for power generation would agree never to develop their own nuclear arsenals.
The bargain has largely held, with episodic violations. Today, there are only four nations that have rejected the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty — North Korea, India, Pakistan and Israel — so that they would be free to have their own weapons. Ukraine returned the weapons left on its soil after the collapse of the Soviet Union, though the codes to launch them were always under Moscow’s control.
Now, however, the plant may well be playing into Mr. Putin’s strategy of intimidation, especially after his plans to control all of Ukraine collapse. “Putin has little reason to remove the danger of a nuclear accident,’’ Mr. Samore said. “It’s leverage.”
Marc Santora contributed reporting from Kyiv, Ukraine.