Russia Using Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Plant Raises Risk Of Nuclear Disaster

Though Russia has denied launching strikes from the plant, reports from Ukraine suggest military trucks were seen entering and exiting the power station.

Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant
The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine. (Image: Twitter/ @Podolyak_M)

New Delhi: Over four months since Russia invaded Ukraine, it has now been accused of using Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, the Zaporizhzhia, for shelling and firing rockets into Ukrainian controlled side. Russia had seized control of the plant in March. This could end in a disaster much like the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in 1986, then controlled by the Soviet Union.

UN secretary general António Guterres has called for international inspectors to be given access to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, saying, “Any attack to a nuclear plant is a suicidal thing.” The words come two days after the commemoration of the 77th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombings, while Nagasaki’s will be marked on August 9.

Though Russia has denied launching strikes from the plant, reports from Ukraine suggest military trucks were seen entering and exiting the power station. News agency Reuters reported that experts say it is “highly likely” the trucks are unloading ammunition.

It comes as the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) warned that the situation at Zaporizhzhia “is completely out of control” and is getting more dangerous each day.

At the same time, Guterres spoke of the situation worsening, risking the use of nuclear weapons: “I hope these asks will be taken seriously because we are witnessing a radicalisation in the geopolitical situation that makes the risk of a nuclear war again something we cannot completely forget.”

Russia’s Nuclear Arms

The current threat of a disaster at the nuclear power plant are high. But what about the chance of an actual attack, would Russia go there?

In June, a member of Russia’s parliament, Alexei Zhuravlev, threated America with a nuclear attack for providing support to Ukraine. He told Russian state television that “to destroy the entire the East Coast of the United States, two Sarmat missiles are needed”. “And the same goes for the West Coast,” he added. “Four missiles, and there will be nothing left.”

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) yearbook 2022 on armaments, disarmament and international security says that as of January 2022, Russia maintained a military stockpile of approximately 4,477 nuclear warheads, around 20 fewer than the estimate for January 2021.

Russia maintains the highest stockpile among all nuclear armed states, followed by the US with 3,708 in total.

From the total stockpile that Russia has, about 2,565 are offensive strategic warheads, of which roughly 1,588 are reportedly deployed on land-and sea-based ballistic missiles and at bomber bases. Russia also possessed approximately 1,912 non-strategic (tactical) nuclear warheads. All of the non-strategic warheads are thought to be at central storage sites.

Interestingly, Russia has also as recently as December 2021, just months before invading Ukraine on February 24, completed the rearmament of its first regiment of six RS-18 (SS-19 Mod 4) missiles equipped with the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) system. These were installed at Dombarovsky, Orenburg oblast. Russia has also reportedly been installing Avangard-equipped missiles at a rate of two per year in upgraded complexes with new facilities, fences and Dym-2 perimeter defence systems.

The report also says that Russia plans to install the first two missiles in the second Avangard regiment at Dombarovsky in 2022 or 2023 (construction was already well under way in 2021), with the entire regiment’s rearmament scheduled for completion by the end of 2027.

The Avangard is a nuclear-capable, hypersonic boost-glide vehicle developed by the Russian Federation. It was one of six “next generation” weapons described by Russian President Vladimir Putin during a speech in March 2018.

Looking in the context of the world and its nuclear stockpile, of the 9,440 warheads in the military stockpiles of the world, some 3,730 are deployed with operational forces (on missiles or bomber bases). Of those, approximately 1,940 nuclear warheads US, Russian, British and French warheads are on high alert, ready for use on short notice, according to Federation of American Scientists.

As of September 2020, the US stockpile of nuclear warheads consisted of 3,750 warheads. The United Kingdom and France have some nuclear weapons on lower levels of alert that would take longer to launch than US and Russian alert forces, but are fully operational and deployed. The report says the others, with nuclear weapons: China, Pakistan,1 India and Israel are likely not on alert on a normal basis, and China and India have a no-first-use policy for nuclear weapons in effect.