Russia, China, Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant

Nuclear Power

After several days of heightened worry about a Russian strike on Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant (ZNPP) in late June and early July, such a provocative action appears increasingly implausible.¬†

A plant attack is unlikely. Moscow tacitly threatens Ukraine and other Western governments with nuclear weapons, but it is aware of the hazards of even one nuclear mishap and is not incentivized to target the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station. The destruction of the ZNPP would do little damage to Ukrainian military forces; world public opinion, including in China (and possibly within Russia), would likely react swiftly and extremely negatively to an attack; the Western and NATO response would be strong; an incident would permanently reduce Russia’s role in nuclear energy supply chains; and Putin’s forces might disobey the order to attack.

The overwhelming evidence demonstrates that Vladimir Putin is rational and can be stopped, despite his long history of nuclear threats against the West, notably during the invasion of Ukraine.

Putin’s amorality doesn’t suggest he thinks nuclear terrorism will benefit him. Attacks have few military gains. Nuclear energy specialists say an act of nuclear terrorism against the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power facility would have little impact on nearby areas because the reactors have been shut down for over 10 months and no longer produce heat.

Attacks have enormous political costs. An attack on the ZNPP would breach the nuclear threshold and undermine Moscow’s relations with Beijing and New Delhi.

Beijing has denounced the ZNPP’s attacks. The first news conference after the Prigozhin insurrection featured a Ukrainian journalist who highlighted worries about the ZNPP.

The spokeswoman repeated Xi Jinping’s remarks to Putin. In early June, Western and Chinese sources said that Xi personally warned Putin against using nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

Putin knows Beijing’s “pro-Russia neutrality” doesn’t guarantee Moscow’s support. He knows that Russian nuclear terrorism on the ZNPP would draw retaliation from the West and Beijing.

Beijing’s political and economic response to Russian nuclear terrorism is unknown, although nuclear energy cooperation with Moscow would likely decrease.

If ZNPP is attacked, China may cease nuclear energy commerce with Russia. Russia is vital to nuclear energy supply systems, so removing it would take years.

Moscow does not control upstream uranium mining, but Beijing and the West would struggle to replace Russia’s involvement in nuclear energy supply chains, especially in uranium conversion and enrichment. A nuclear strike on the ZNPP might prompt Beijing and the West to strengthen ties with Kazakhstan and other countries in the nuclear energy supply chain, where 43% of global uranium mining takes place.

Of fact, attacking the ZNPP would hurt Sino-Russian nuclear energy cooperation more. After a nuclear terrorist attack, Beijing would face extraordinary domestic and Western pressure to cut ties with Moscow.

Putin may be deterred from attacking the ZNPP by political resistance and diplomatic repercussions. Russian soldiers may refuse to assault a nuclear facility if Putin orders it. Military disobedience to a direct order would significantly undermine Putin’s authority, already weakened by the Prigozhin mutiny, and could lead to his ouster.

Given Putin’s cost-benefit analysis, a nuclear terrorist assault on Zaporizhzhia is unlikely.

Read More: After Bakhmut: Reflections on the Most Recent Stage of the Ukraine War

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