Interview with Robert E. Kelley: The Zaporizhzhia Power Plant and Putin’s Finger on the Big Red Button

5 mins read

This month, the Alva Myrdal Centre for Nuclear Disarmament held its first annual conference in light of the developments in Ukraine. Among the keynote speakers was Robert E. Kelley, a former nuclear weapons analyst at the US Los Alamos National Laboratory and IAEA Director of the nuclear inspections in Iraq in 1992 and again in 2001. He is now a Distinguished Associate Fellow at Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). 

Uttryck’s Lycke Holmén met Kelley at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research to talk about the latest developments around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.

The IAEA is reporting damages to the plant’s power lines and other supporting infrastructure. How big is the risk of a meltdown accident in Zaporizhzhia? 

— It’s small and getting smaller as the plant has now been isolated. It is an extremely valuable asset for both sides because they want the plant for its electricity supply. The Russians tried to redirect energy to Russia through the war zone in Donbas, but were unsuccessful in synchronising it to the Russian grid. At the same time, Ukrainians were blowing up power lines that the Russians wanted to use which caused the Russians to shut down the plant. That’s where we are now; the plant’s shut down and there is a tremendous amount of misinformation coming out. People think there’s a possibility that it could explode like Chornobyl. But it’s not going to explode, and it won’t be like Chornobyl. It is a totally different reactor.

What would be the biggest risk if shelling continued around the plant despite the fact that it has now been isolated?

— The Russians have published pictures of what they claim was a 152 artillery shell that damaged some of the piping around the ponds containing the fuel rods, since you can see holes in the giant pipes. I was surprised the damage was as small as it was because if it really had been a 152 artillery shell, it would have blown the pipes to pieces. But those things are definitely a threat, no question about it. If an artillery shell or any conventional explosive got into the pond it could make quite a big mess and release some radioactive isotopes into the wind. Although, I don’t think it would have any effects beyond a few ten kilometres at the most. It might be that the town next to the plant would need a new place to live for a while. 

People are talking about the potential risk of damage to the emergency generator. How real is that possibility?

— If all electricity is lost, it could be like Fukushima, although it’s unlikely. There are twenty emergency generators on the site and each of them has fuel for many days. Each of the reactors requiring cooling can subsist on one generator. So there are three times as many generators as they need. It would take quite an amazing mistake or intentional action to put the plant in danger. 

Could such damage be done purely by explosives or would it require people inside the plant?

— The most likely scenario would not be people going inside the plant. The core is located underwater and surrounded by a massively thick building. It’s the last place where you’d want to attack the plant. You could, however, attack the pumps that allow the cooling water to flow through the reactor by getting rid of all electricity. My guess is that they’re located outdoors or in a light building. But this would require a carefully thought out plan to manage to damage all six reactors. But I’d like to reinforce that both sides will work very hard to preserve it. The Ukrainians because they think they’ll win the war, and the Russians, because they claim the Zaporizhzhia province as theirs, and intend to use it once the war is over. It’s an economic thing.

Has there ever been an attack against an operational nuclear reactor before?

— The only such attack was by the Americans in Baghdad in 1991. It was a very small research reactor. But if the Americans didn’t control the writing of history, it would have gone down as the only time a state has attacked another state’s operating reactor. Israel was very careful not to attack the Iraqi reactor even though it probably contained plutonium. They decided to attack it just before it went critical as they didn’t want to be accused of attacking it once it was running.

Would that be a good war tactic for Russia?

— It’s stupid, really. Firstly because of the value of the Zaporizhzhia power plant. Secondly, because it is not far away from Russian territory; if there is an accident there’s the potential for damage to Russian interests. Right now, the Russians control that part of the province and have their people inside the plant. That’s why I was sceptical of the reports saying Russia was shelling it. Turns out the damaged power lines were, for the most part, lines carrying electricity out, not incoming lines, which means that it doesn’t really matter as no electricity is being produced. 

At least that is somewhat reassuring. If we then widen the perspective, do you believe that Putin could resort to using tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine?

– My crystal ball is very cloudy. On the twenty-third of February, I was saying “he’ll never invade”. Well, I was very wrong, so I won’t extrapolate my stupidity. But I think it would be such a provocative action and so damaging to the reputation of Russia that the whole world would turn against them. And militarily, it is not at all clear what good it would do.

What worries you the most in terms of nuclear weapons in the world today?

– I think that Pakistan and India have the lowest threshold for attacking each other, and the most incentive for doing so. But ask Tariq Rauf that question and he’ll tell you I’m crazy. He and I are good friends and disagree on friendly matters. 

Tariq Rauf is currently a Board Member of the Atomic Reporters, formerly Head of Verification & Security Policy as well as Alternate Head of NPT (Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons) Delegation of the IAEA. He tells me he disagrees with Kelley; Pakistan and India have the least incentive to attack each other. What worries Rauf the most is the proxy war being fought by the United States in Ukraine, and the uncertainty of what a desperate Putin might do if he is pushed into a corner.

Do you think that the situation in Ukraine will have consequences on nonproliferation in the future?

— I think that the answer has to be yes. We’ve gone from a period where the use of these things was becoming very unlikely, nobody believed it. Now, a few weeks ago Putin said that the US has created a “precedent” by using nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A “precedent”. 

Lastly, during the course of your professional career, you have travelled all over the world and seen things not many other people have seen. What left the strongest impression?

— A very positive and pleasant experience was in South Africa because they asked us (the IAEA) to come and certify that they got rid of their nuclear weapons. They were very cooperative, unlike many other places. We got to see everything and they answered all of our questions. What more can you ask for? 

Lycke Holmen is a 23 year-old student of Peace and Development studies whose main areas of interest include international politics, democratic development and nonproliferation. When she’s not out travelling she enjoys tennis, reading, and late night card games. Will be lured into any place with live music.

Image: Inside the Chornobyl power plant. Credit: Mick De Paola

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