Russia Is Using the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Plant as a Shield—and as a Weapon

Nuclear catastrophe has a way of focusing minds around the world. Before the expansion of the war in Ukraine this year, the country was still perhaps best known for being the site of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Vladimir Putin understands how the risk of a comparable crisis could get the world’s attention, which helps explain what has been happening at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in recent weeks. 

Zaporizhzhia is the largest nuclear power plant in Europe—and it’s also located in between Europe’s largest armies as they fight the region’s fiercest war since 1945. The plant, which has twice as many nuclear reactors as America’s largest nuclear installation, was an enormous asset for Ukraine. The cheap and abundant energy produced at the plant, which is actually about 30 miles from the city of Zaporizhzhia, is one of the biggest positive legacies of the Soviet Union in a country otherwise ground down by that evil empire. But more recently it has been the site of intense shelling and even a “commando attack” by Ukrainian forces. 

After the invasion began Russian troops were stopped cold outside of Kyiv and stalled elsewhere in the country, this nuclear plant was a huge prize that Russia won relatively easily by day eight. It’s particularly helpful to Russia because Crimea, seized in 2014, can’t work without Ukraine. There just isn’t enough power generation capacity in Crimea, the biggest piece of loot Russia has stolen in the past eight years, to support its development. But with Zaporizhzhia, the Russians could support their colonies and dependents in Eastern and Southern Ukraine or even export some of the power all the way to Russia. “Electric energy is a commodity that you can’t store in a warehouse,” Russian Deputy Prime Minister for Construction and Regional Development Marat Khusnullin frankly spelled out in May. “If the energy system of Ukraine is ready to accept it and pay money, then we will work [with them], if it will not accept this, then (the plant) will work for Russia.”

Like so much else in this war, taking this nuclear power plant hasn’t gone according to the Kremlin’s rosy plans. It is now close to the front lines. The Russians control only one bank of the Dnieper river here. The unoccupied Ukrainian city of Nikopol is right across the river, only 7 miles from the plant. Ukrainian artillery and special forces raids leave fewer and fewer places close to the frontlines where Russians can feel safe. The power plant, once a prize, is now a shield. The Russians placed equipment and personnel near or even within the plant, daring Ukrainians to shoot at them, according to early reports. In early August the Russians started shelling the city of Nikopol from the grounds of the plant. When the Ukrainians fire back, then Russia can propagandize about the dastardly Ukrainians risking a second Chernobyl. If the Ukrainians do not oblige, then Russian artillery can surely provide the required rockets. 

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