Please enable JavaScript in your browser to view this site in optimal condition.
When displaying with JavaScript disabled, some functions may not be available or correct information may not be obtained.

Hiroshima for Global Peace

Hiroshima Report 2023Column 6 Armed Attack on Nuclear Facilities

Tatsujiro Suzuki

On February 24, 2022, directly following its armed invasion of Ukraine, Russia shocked the world by attacking and occupying the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) site, which was already under decommissioning measures. Furthermore, on the 27th of the same month, it had executed a missile strike on a nuclear waste material processing plant located on the outskirts of Kiev. On March 4, Russia then attacked and occupied the Zaporizhzhia NPP, the largest nuclear power plant site in Europe. The missile attack disrupted the power supply to the plant, and the world faced the risk that a single mistake could result in the release of a substantial quantity of radioactive materials, causing serious radioactive contamination not only in Ukraine but in neighboring countries as well. This was an unprecedented emergency situation in which a nuclear power plant in operation was attacked and occupied during a time of war, and the world was reminded of the new risk of “nuclear facilities in wartime.”
Shortly after the invasion, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) began communicating with the Ukrainian nuclear authorities to assess the current situation, and at the end of August, in consultation with the Russian and Ukrainian governments, an IAEA team visited the Zaporizhzhia NPP site to evaluate its condition and to make recommendations based on the “Seven Pillars” for ensuring safety. Most notably, the team strongly advocated for the demilitarization of areas surrounding nuclear facilities, but this has yet to be realized. As of January 2023, the Zaporizhzhia site remains under Russian control and has not been restored to its original state, leaving it in a precarious situation.
The Russian attack on the nuclear power plant violated Article 56 of the First Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions on acts of war under international humanitarian law, according to many countries. This is based on paragraph 1 of Article 56, which stipulates that, along with dams and dikes, nuclear power plants “shall not be made the object of attack, even where these objects are military objectives, if such attack may cause the release of dangerous forces and consequent severe losses among the civilian population.” However, this issue also led to Russia’s opposition at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference held in August 2022 over the statements included in the draft final document, as Russia has not acknowledged its actions as illegal.

Furthermore, Article 56 covers only nuclear power plants and does not cover other facilities, such as spent fuel storage pools, radioactive waste storage facilities, or reprocessing facilities, which could have other serious consequences. With this in mind, the IAEA, at its 53rd General Conference (2009), unanimously adopted the Chairman’s Statement “Prohibition of Military Attack or Threat of Attack on Nuclear Facilities in Operation or Under Construction” on the grounds that any armed attack on a civilian nuclear facility would constitute a violation of the UN Charter, international law, and the Statute of the IAEA.

The armed attack has also raised discussions on whether a new review of conventional nuclear security measures is needed. In Japan, the National Governors’ Association submitted an urgent request to the government in March 2022 regarding an armed attack on nuclear power plants, leading to a heightened interest in measures to protect nuclear power plants has increased. The revised “National Security Strategy” released in December emphasizes the defense of critical infrastructure, including nuclear power plants, and a armed attack on nuclear power plants is now being considered as a real risk.
Practically speaking, defense against armed attacks against nuclear power plants is a challenging and complicated task. In light of this, we believe the following are examples of measures that should be considered. (1) “Model Safety Assurance Measures” including ceasing operation in the event of war should be drafted by countries who have nuclear facilities so that they can quickly adopt such measures in the event of war (with related countries establishing a support framework to ensure that there are no disruptions to energy supply in such a case); (2) Establish a framework involving the United Nations and related countries so that, even in the event of war, the IAEA can be safely dispatched to the site to assist in ensuring safety in cooperation with the countries concerned; and (3) Establish legally binding international norms, including amending existing treaties, such as nuclear safety convention and convention on nuclear material control and management, to prohibit any military action against civilian nuclear facilities.




Tatsujiro Suzuki: Vice Director and Professor, Research Center for Nuclear Weapons Abolition, Nagasaki University (RECNA)

< BackNext >