Ukraine nuclear power plant caught in war’s crossfire

The School of Arts & Sciences’ Anna Mikulska, an expert on the geopolitics of energy, discusses the situation at the Zaporizhzhiya Nuclear Power Station, Russia’s aims, and what she’s most concerned about.

Person seen walking in a town across the river from the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine
A pedestrian crosses the street near the Dnipro river and Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Station on the other side in Nikopol, Ukraine, Aug, 22, 2022. The Zaporizhzhya plant, Europe’s largest, has been occupied by Russian forces since early in the war, and continued fighting nearby has heightened fears of a catastrophe that could affect nearby towns in southern Ukraine or beyond. (Image: AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka, File)

Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency are in Ukraine to assess the situation at the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Station. The Russian-occupied facility has been caught in the crossfire as the war in Ukraine continues, leading to mounting concerns of potential disaster. Both sides blame the other for shelling at the plant, which has damaged it and at times disconnected it from the local grid.

Anna Mikulska, previously a senior fellow and lecturer at the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, is teaching a course this semester called Geopolitics of Energy in Russia and Eurasia in the Department of Russian and East European Studies.

She spoke with Penn Today about the situation at the nuclear power plant, Russia’s aims, and what she’s most concerned about.

Ukraine has accused Russia of directing strikes at the plant to cut off energy supplies, but Russia says Ukraine is doing the shelling. What is your assessment of what’s happening?

Russia is doing everything it can to destabilize Ukraine and its neighbors. Anything that makes the situation in Ukraine more certain is not in Russia’s favor because then it doesn’t have leverage. If this nuclear power plant is connected to the grid, providing energy to Ukraine, that provides some type of stability for Ukraine and its neighbors. But, if there is no assurance that the nuclear plant is going to work properly or provide enough energy, that creates a situation that Russia feeds off. They can try to undermine the solidarity between Europe and Ukraine, or even within European nations. That’s the big picture that one needs to understand.

Russia wants to stir the pot to destabilize Ukraine and make things more uncertain because that serves its purpose and serves its interests. Before, they had the European reliance on Russian energy. But when they see things like the Germans filling up their natural gas stores and potentially not needing as much from Russia, they have to think of new ways to disturb the status quo.

Officials from the U.S., the E.U., and the U.N. are calling for the creation of a demilitarized zone around the plant. What should the international community be doing?

What the international community can be doing right now is very limited outside of creating a demilitarized zone, within which there would be better assurance of the nuclear plant’s functioning. Establishing a demilitarized zone would be a preemptive measure. Any attack on a plant in a demilitarized zone would potentially have more consequences than an attack on a nuclear power plant in Ukrainian territory only. So creating this zone increases the stakes for everybody else. If there was an attack on a nuclear plant within Ukraine, it would be extremely significant and other nations would mobilize to address it, but if there was an attack on the demilitarized zone, where foreign forces have been stationed, that would elevate the issue and potentially could incite a direct response.

UN nuclear inspection team leave Kyiv, Ukraine, en route to the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant
A team of IAEA experts and inspectors leave the capital Kyiv, Ukraine, on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022. The U.N. nuclear watchdog team set off on an urgent mission to safeguard the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhya atomic power plant at the heart of fighting in Ukraine. (Image: AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

How unusual is it to have a nuclear facility in the middle of a war zone?

We haven’t had many wars in the developed world where nations are in possession of nuclear technology. The only place that would be remotely comparable is India and Pakistan, where the conflict actually stopped when Pakistan was able to acquire nuclear weapons. That’s the idea of nuclear peace. That goes to the point of Ukraine thinking, ‘Well, why did we give away the nuclear weapons that we had? We could potentially not be dealing with this situation.’ But it is also a matter of energy security for the Ukrainians and a matter of being able to heat houses and keep the lights on. Winter is coming, and there is already lower natural gas storage in Ukraine.

What concerns you most about what’s happening at the plant now?

What concerns me is the fact that there are seemingly no specific indicators of what Russia is willing and not willing to do. It’s hard to see where Russia would be willing to stop. It has not been as hurt by the different types of sanctions and the behavior of companies as we thought it would be, at least not in the short term.

For a government like Russia that does not require elections to stay in power and that uses extensive propaganda to keep its society in check, there’s not many things that it might be afraid of doing, again in the short term. That’s the biggest concern; we really don’t know what we can expect. The more comfortable the U.S. or NATO feel, and look, the more unexpected the moves by Russia could potentially be, especially if Russia feels out of options. Unelected governments have many more tools at their disposal than democratic governments. That is what Putin is going to be feeding off of when he justifies his actions to his society.

When you look at what’s happening in the West, many of the governments—governments that are against Putin, that have imposed sanctions on Russia, spoken out against Russia, and have sent weapons to Ukraine—are currently faced with very difficult economic conditions. They are related to post-COVID recovery, to high prices of energy that that the sanctions have, to some extent, generated, and to high inflation.

It is a situation where leaders of these democratic governments might be affected by electoral outcomes. We’ve seen it already in France where President Macron lost the majority in the parliamentary elections. We've seen the Italian government have to be reconstructed, and we will potentially see more democratic governments changing hands. For Putin, he can go to his people in Russia and say, ‘Nothing they do works against us, we are just fine. Our inflation is lower than these other countries; we are getting paid for whatever energy we are selling and those other governments are falling.’ But that’s how democracy works. People vote for change. Peaceful transfer of power is a hallmark of democracy. Nevertheless, this is going to be fodder for Putin setting the stage and justifying it to his population, and it can and will potentially protract this conflict.

What is most important for people to understand about what is happening at the Zaporizhzhya power plant?

It matters because, if anything happens to the power plant, it will impact the lives of people not only in that location but far, far away from it. It would be a disaster for people living close by, for those further out, and it would be an environmental disaster. On another level it could escalate the conflict to new heights and potentially involve Western powers in different ways. This could be seen as one step down to an atomic attack, and it’s something everyone is looking at very closely because it could really escalate the conflict on many levels. Russia doesn’t necessarily want that to happen, and that’s why you might be seeing both sides calling for the international inspection to set up the status quo.