Russia’s Gone Nuclear in Ukraine—With Power Plants, not Missiles

The United States and United Nations have told Moscow to stop holding Europe’s biggest nuclear reactor hostage.

By , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
A general view shows the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant
A general view shows the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant
A general view shows the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, situated in the Russian-controlled area of Enerhodar, seen from Nikopol, Ukraine, on April 27. Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. State Department and the United Nations called for a demilitarized zone around the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in southeastern Ukraine today, as the Kremlin’s chaotic four months managing Europe’s largest nuclear energy facility has raised concerns of a Chernobyl-like meltdown.

In a statement, a State Department spokesperson called the fighting around Zaporizhzhia “dangerous and irresponsible” after the plant was shelled earlier today for the second time in recent days, which led to rounds of finger-pointing from both sides. Ukrainian officials have accused Russian troops of using the plant as a nuclear shield after deploying rocket launchers to the facility and turning it into an impromptu military base.

“We continue to call on Russia to cease all military operations at or near Ukrainian nuclear facilities and return full control to Ukraine, and support Ukrainian calls for a demilitarized zone around the nuclear power plant,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement on condition of anonymity based on ground rules set by the State Department.

The U.S. State Department and the United Nations called for a demilitarized zone around the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in southeastern Ukraine today, as the Kremlin’s chaotic four months managing Europe’s largest nuclear energy facility has raised concerns of a Chernobyl-like meltdown.

In a statement, a State Department spokesperson called the fighting around Zaporizhzhia “dangerous and irresponsible” after the plant was shelled earlier today for the second time in recent days, which led to rounds of finger-pointing from both sides. Ukrainian officials have accused Russian troops of using the plant as a nuclear shield after deploying rocket launchers to the facility and turning it into an impromptu military base.

“We continue to call on Russia to cease all military operations at or near Ukrainian nuclear facilities and return full control to Ukraine, and support Ukrainian calls for a demilitarized zone around the nuclear power plant,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement on condition of anonymity based on ground rules set by the State Department.

This week, Russian officials said they would allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to see the facility, after the U.N. nuclear watchdog said the situation at the plant was “completely out of control” and in need of inspection and urgent repairs. António Guterres, the United Nations secretary-general, said in a statement that the Zaporizhzhia facility “must not be used as part of any military operation” and that an urgent agreement would be needed to ensure a safe demilitarized perimeter around the area.

Russian openness to inspections at the besieged power plant also coincided with ominous warnings from top Kremlin officials. On his Telegram channel on Friday, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, now deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, wrote that accusations saying Russia was shelling the plant were “100% nonsense,” adding a veiled threat toward the West. “Let’s not forget that the European Union also has nuclear power plants,” he wrote. “And accidents can happen there, too.”

But despite American calls for Russia to fall back from the nuclear plant—which generates about one-fifth of Ukraine’s electricity—some Ukrainian officials believe that the Kremlin is eyeing critical infrastructure in Ukraine in an effort to exact maximum leverage at the bargaining table. Russia’s military also briefly occupied the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, the site of the 1986 nuclear disaster, before giving up on efforts to quickly seize Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv.

“Russians claim Energoatom nuclear power plant is property of [Russian state-owned nuclear company] Rosatom now because they just grabbed it,” said Tymofiy Mylovanov, an advisor to the Zelensky administration, referring to the Ukrainian state-owned company that manages all four of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants. “They are thinking about it, keeping it as a foot in the door for the next attack down the road.”

Mylovanov said Russia’s focus on the nuclear power plant was in line with targets that seemed to have little value, such as schools across Ukraine and the Mariupol theater, where hundreds of refugees displaced by fighting were hiding out when it was leveled by a Russian airstrike in March. Russia also appears to be using thermobaric weapons to destroy apartment blocks near Donetsk. Mylovanov added that Russia had also focused on hitting chemical and metallurgical plants as well as power stations to put pressure on Ukraine during the coming winter, expected to be a brutal one, with deliberate disruptions of energy supplies to Europe as part of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s campaign.

But the situation at Zaporizhzhia, which Russian forces seized during a night attack in March that led top Ukrainian officials, including President Volodymyr Zelensky, to fear a possible Chernobyl-like meltdown, has deteriorated in recent months. Most of the Ukrainian workers at the power plant have left, officials said, and Russia has tried to coerce the few remaining people through torture.

“They kidnap and torture people for weeks,” said Mylovanov, the Zelensky administration advisor. “They started giving out passports and are trying to get people to join Russian companies. For example, in [Zaporizhzhia] nuclear power station, they’re putting pressure on people to resign from the Ukrainian state-owned company and join the Russian one.”

The United States and top European allies believe that Russia’s brutal style of management is increasing the threat of a disaster.

“Ukrainian staff operating the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant must be able to carry out their duties without threats or pressure,” the foreign ministers of G-7 nations said in a statement released on Wednesday. “It is Russia’s continued control of the plant that endangers the region.”

Update, Aug 12, 2022: This story has been updated to provide additional information about the Russian government’s response.

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

U.S. President Joe Biden listens to remarks in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington on May 19.
U.S. President Joe Biden listens to remarks in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington on May 19.

Russia’s Defeat Would Be America’s Problem

Victory in Ukraine could easily mean hubris in Washington.

Russian and Belarusian troops take part in joint military exercises.
Russian and Belarusian troops take part in joint military exercises.

Russia’s Stripped Its Western Borders to Feed the Fight in Ukraine

But Finland and the Baltic states are still leery of Moscow’s long-term designs.

Electricity pylons are shown under cloudy skies during rainfall near Romanel-sur-Lausanne, Switzerland, on Sept. 15.
Electricity pylons are shown under cloudy skies during rainfall near Romanel-sur-Lausanne, Switzerland, on Sept. 15.

Europe’s Energy Crisis Is Destroying the Multipolar World

The EU and Russia are losing their competitive edge. That leaves the United States and China to duke it out.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announces new European Union energy policies at the bloc’s headquarters in Brussels, on Sept. 7.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announces new European Union energy policies at the bloc’s headquarters in Brussels, on Sept. 7.

With Winter Coming, Europe Is Walking Off a Cliff

Europeans won’t escape their energy crisis as long as ideology trumps basic math.