By Robert Moore
As I write, there remains a grave danger that the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Energy plant in Ukraine, Europe’s largest, could have a meltdown, similar to the catastrophic one at Chernobyl. All it would take is for the electricity needed to keep the cooling pools where the used fuel rods are stored to end; and that has already happened for brief periods three times recently.
Alternatively, if a demilitarized zone is not quickly established, conventional weapon attacks could result in the plant becoming a “dirty bomb,” spewing deadly radioactive materials over a very wide area, rendering vast areas inhospitable to the survival of life. President Zelensky has correctly characterized Russia’s military actions as turning the nuclear plant into a kind of nuclear weapon.
Thankfully, some rays of hope are emerging. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) experts recently did an independent inspection of the plant, and two have remained for ongoing monitoring. And there are reports that Russia and Ukraine are negotiating for some kind of agreement—but probably short of a demilitarized zone—to prevent military attacks on the plant.
However, it remains uncertain whether those negotiations will succeed; I fervently pray they will. However, it’s not too soon to conclude that continued reliance on nuclear energy to generate electricity can be weaponized, as we never know when a plant might become a military target. If a conventionally powered power plant had an accident or became a military base, the area near it could recover. That’s just not the case with nuclear energy.
Moreover, Russia has a policy that if they appear to be on the verge of losing a military conflict—and they have just lost a vast area previously occupied by the Russian army—they are willing to then use a so-called tactical nuclear weapon (these are as powerful as the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki) to force the opponent to back off and make concessions. Putin did a lot of nuclear saber rattling earlier in the war, and is now under considerable pressure from the hawks in Russia to forcefully counter recent Ukrainian gains.
In addition to strongly supporting the negotiations for demilitarizing Zaporizhzhia, the US and our western allies should join in declaring a policy of No First Use of nuclear weapons. This would be strongly supported by the global community as a crucial step away from the very real danger of the Ukraine War becoming a nuclear war.
It would also match the longstanding No First Use policy of China. Top military analysts are warning of a growing danger of war with China—forecast as likely within the next five years—over their aggressive steps to assert control over Taiwan. If, God forbid, such a war did break out, it would be an extremely important barrier to it becoming a nuclear war to have No First Use of nuclear weapons as a policy by the US matching that of China.
We must move toward globally banning nuclear weapons, as well as nuclear energy, to prevent these nightmare outcomes and step back from the brink of nuclear annihilation.
Movement toward that ambitious goal only has a chance of succeeding if millions in the US and around the world undertake renewed activism. History frequently shows us that “leaders” on act when pushed hard by the people.
Those interested in participating in this renewed effort to prevent nuclear annihilation—from nuclear weapons or energy—are urged to visit peacecoalition.org.
The Rev. Robert Moore has been Executive Director of the Princeton-based Coalition for Peace Action since September 1981.