War in Ukraine Will Change What We Think About Nuclear Energy

War in Ukraine Will Change What We Think about Nuclear Energy
fot. kirklai/Unsplash

The war in Ukraine is now entering its next phase. A counteroffensive by Western-backed Ukrainian troops is slowly moving the front line into areas previously occupied by the Russians. The success of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, however, has been met with a harsh response from Vladimir Putin, who has announced the mobilization of troops and, more worryingly, explicitly threatened to use nuclear weapons.

However, this is not the first time nuclear technology has been at the center of Russian aggression. One of its first targets became the Zaporizhia power plant, occupied by Federation troops since March. The Zaporizhzhzhya Nuclear Power Plant has since come under fire several times, sparking discussion about the potential use of nuclear facilities for war purposes.

The backdrop to the current debate about the role of nuclear technology in our social life, which the Russian aggression against Ukraine has triggered, is of course the climate crisis. At the same time, the promise of clean energy and energy sovereignty seems like an ideal way to meet climate commitments. However, won’t nuclear fear thwart these plans?

Atomic enthusiasm

Nuclear energy has always had a close relationship with the defense industry. Indeed, the watershed moment for atomic research came during the Second World War, when the leading goal of the scientists involved was to create an absolute weapon that would tip the scales of conflict. The resultant of their work became the concept of extracting electricity from the process.

Even reports on the long-term consequences of dropping nuclear charges on Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not stop the atomic enthusiasm that first swept the United States and later spread to the rest of the world. However, the trend toward building new nuclear power plants had already declined decisively by the late 1970s, when the Three Mile Island incident took place, eventually giving way to the nuclear panic created by the Chernobyl disaster.

Plans for a new era of nuclear energy were sufficiently thwarted with the Fukushima plant accident in 2011. A good example of the impact of public sentiment on energy policy is the case of Germany. Nuclear power plants built in the 1980s were supposed to support the country’s energy economy until at least 2035. However, a month after the Japanese reactor accident took place, Germany has shut down as many as eight plants of this type. It was then that the moment was set for 2022 for the closure of all nuclear power plants in the country and a complete shift away from this energy source.

Although nuclear power plants still do not have a good reputation, we are now hearing new accusations in their direction. Indeed, the Russian attack on Ukraine has exposed a new potential threat – the use of nuclear facilities in military operations.

Unleash dangerous forces

The Zaporizhzhya nuclear plant has already become the target of shelling several times since March, for which Moscow and Kiev blame each other. It should be mentioned that the Zaporizhia Nuclear Power Plant is the largest of its kind in Europe.

In August, the commander of the Russian Federation’s Radiological, Chemical and Biological Defense Forces, Gen.Valery Vasiliev, who also commands the garrison present on the territory of the Zaporizhzhya power plant, said that here would be Russian soil, or a scorched desert. He thus commented on the news that all the most important equipment of the facility had been mined.

Although there are international conventions providing for a similar eventuality, they leave considerable room for interpretation. Such a scenario is envisaged, among others, by the Geneva Convention, to which both the Russian Federation and Ukraine are parties. According to its provisions, nuclear power plants may not be attacked even if they are military targets, provided that such an attack could unleash dangerous forces and thus cause heavy casualties among the civilian population.

However, the Convention speaks of a circumstance when an attack on nuclear power plants is permitted, namely, when they provide electricity in regular, substantial and direct support of the war effort, and if such an attack is the only practical means of ending such support. When we are talking about facilities that provide access to energy for a significant part of the country, as is the case with the Zaporizhia Power Plant, this provision clearly leaves room for abuse.

It should be emphasized that no power plant is designed for warfare. Definitely, such a facility should not be the target of military attacks. The presence of foreign troops, the fact that the personnel of the power plant work in very difficult conditions, are under tremendous stress, can pose a threat to the operation of the facility.said the president of the State Atomic Energy Agency in Poland, Łukasz Młynarkiewicz.

Energy sovereignty

Although nuclear technology currently enjoys an extremely bad press, its potential could prove crucial to the development of energy policy. Germany, which at this point should be shutting down its last three nuclear power plants, is now trying to reverse decision to do so. We need to take advantage of all opportunities that can contribute to generating power. Nuclear power plants are part of that. – commented Michael Kruse of Germany’s Free Democratic Party.

Putin’s actions are also responsible for the change in the German government’s attitude toward nuclear energy. Indeed, the energy war is a separate front of clashes between the Federation and the West, which depends on Russian resources. Germany, which until now has been the largest importer of Russian coal, knows this best. In addition, fear of gas shortages has provoked the reopening of recently closed coal-fired power plants in the country.

As European countries grasp the razor’s edge of coal in the midst of an energy crisis, it’s hard not to see the positive aspects of nuclear power. Energy independence, job production and a competitive cost of maintaining are certainly arguments that will hit fertile ground in today’s Europe. However, the environmental cost aspect may prove crucial. Climate declarations are forcing nearly 140 countries to make a dynamic shift in energy policy. As many as 124 of them have pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Nuclear power plants, offering carbon-free energy production, can help meet these commitments.

This debate has never been as relevant to Poland. Construction of the long-announced nuclear power plant should begin as early as 2026. It would be scheduled to supply 25 to 36 percent of annual energy needs. While the war in Ukraine may slow down the decarbonization processes in Europe and Poland in particular in the initial period, in the slightly longer term it may significantly accelerate the energy transition. This is not a paradox. – reads a press release from the Polish Academy of Science.