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As Memories Fade
In Atomic Blackmail? Simon Bennett examines the very real possibility of the ‘weaponisation’ of nuclear facilities during the Russia-Ukraine War. The Russia-Ukraine War has several unique aspects, the most striking of which is that it is being fought in proximity to nuclear facilities and working nuclear power stations, including the six-reactor Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (NPP), Europe’s largest, and the decommissioned four-reactor Chernobyl NPP that, in 1986, suffered a catastrophic failure that released radioactive contamination across much of Europe. Some experts claim the contamination caused several thousand excess cancer deaths.
In 1985, foreign affairs and nuclear expert Bennett Ramberg published Nuclear Power Plants: An Unrecognised Military Peril, with a second edition of the book published in 1992. In his visionary discourse, Ramberg posited that in future wars, regional or global, nuclear facilities and powerplants might be weaponised, to gain political traction over an opponent and/or neutralise opposing forces’ capacity for battlefield manoeuvre.
In one scenario, Ramberg described how a protagonist could use long-range munitions to turn a NPP into a dirty bomb that would spread radioactive contamination over a wide area, dispersing or diverting army formations, rendering civilian infrastructure and farmland unusable, contaminating groundwater and creating a radioactive cloud that would – if the wind was blowing in a convenient direction – cause transborder harms. As demonstrated by the Chernobyl disaster, a reactor malfunction can generate serious and long-lasting environmental impacts. Radioactive particles released from Chernobyl’s devastated Reactor Number Four were deposited as far afield as the Cumbrian hills in north-west England.
While, at the time of writing, none of Ukraine’s fifteen reactors had been damaged in an exchange of fire, the possibility remains that this could happen during Ukraine’s 2023, and subsequent, offensives to expel Russian forces from sovereign Ukrainian territory. Much to the consternation of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), there have been several near-misses, with weapons fired in and around both the decommissioned Chernobyl NPP and working Zaporizhzhia NPP. Further, Russian long-range precision munitions (cruise missiles) have been tracked flying either close to, or over Ukraine’s NPPs. The Pivdennoukrainsk (South Ukraine) NPP has been overflown. On 20 September, 2022, a missile landed some 300 metres from the NPP.
While Ramberg’s nightmare vision of destroyed NPPs rendering a country uninhabitable has not, yet, been realised in the Russia-Ukraine War, the longer and more intense the conflict, the greater the likelihood that one or more of Ukraine’s NPPs will be damaged or, via a credible sabotage threat, used to leverage tactical or strategic advantage. Atomic blackmail finally exampled.
Dr Simon Bennett teaches risk management at the University of Leicester, England. He is interested in the organisational, social, economic and political origins of risk. For example, loss of organisational memory, mindlessness, groupthink, reductionism, passive learning, hollowing-out, satisficing, graft, political instability, terrorism and armed conflict. He is a Member of the Air Safety Group of the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety (PACTS). His books include: Insecurity in the Supply of Electrical Energy: An emerging threat to information and communication technologies? (published by Libri Publishing in 2010); Innovative Thinking in Risk, Crisis and Disaster Management (an edited collection published by Gower in 2012); Systems-thinking for Safety. A short introduction to the theory and practice of systems-thinking (published by Peter Lang International Academic Publishers in 2019); Safety in Aviation and Astronautics. A socio-technical approach (published by Routledge in 2022).