July 10, 2023
July 10, 2023

Zaporizhzhia NPP: Facts vs. Fiction

Watch recording

Monday, July 10th at 11:30 am EDT (18:30 Kyiv time)

Experts cut through the heated rhetoric about the dangers posed by Russia's occupation of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant


Irene Jarosewich, public affairs representative from World Federation of Ukrainian Women's Organizations to the United Nations Civil Society Unit


Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges USA (Ret.) Former Commander U.S. Army Europe. Senior Advisor to Human Rights First

Dr. Yuri Kostenko, Ukrainian politician, former member of the Parliament and Minister of Environmental Protection of Ukraine


Key Points by Dr. Yurii Kostenko and Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges

Made During Zaporizhzhia NPP: Fact or Fiction Webinar

Here you can find the summary of responses provided by Dr. Yurii Kostenko and Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges during the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation webinar “Zaporizhzhia NPP: Fact or Fiction” held Monday, July 10, 2023. The text below is not a transcript of the webinar, rather a synthesis of key points made throughout the event.

First question for Dr. Kostenko:

Please comment on statements from The White House, the American Nuclear Society, the International Atomic Energy Commission that: experts have carefully considered “worst case scenarios” at the ZNPP including bombardment and deliberate sabotage of the reactors and spent fuel storage canisters … cannot foresee a situation that would result in radiation-related health consequences to the public … no evidence that a catastrophe is imminent, without explaining either catastrophe nor imminent … and on onsite inspection has deemed the plant to be safe.

Dr. Yurii Kostenko: “With all due respect to experts – American Nuclear Society and the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Commission), a definitive statement of no danger cannot be made. Similar statements were made regarding construction and safety of Chornobyl and Fukushima, the ability of these facilities to withstand all matters of disasters natural and manmade, and the experts were wrong.”

Dr. Kostenko noted that the designer of the plant at Chornobyl boasted that the design was so safe that the plant could be built in Moscow’s Red Square. However, instead of building it in the capital of the Soviet Union, the Chornobyl NPP was built outside the capital of Ukraine, the same country in which the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, ZNPP, is also located. A nuclear power plant under the best of circumstances is a dangerous and vulnerable place, even with full safeguards, which is currently not the case with the ZNPP. This NPP is under occupation by an invading military force that has dismissed Ukrainian experts who monitored the plant, is not under consistent professional supervision, and is being used as a repository for military equipment, including explosives. The IAEA has not been able to inspect fully the entire territory of plant, no permanent outside monitoring presence is allowed. Fukushima was developed to withstand a maximum level earthquake and pride was taken in the solidity of the construction; however, no plans were made to protect against a tsunami. At Chornobyl, a small plant compared to ZNPP and Fukushima, no one predicted the type of stupid decision, the human error that caused the release of radiation. While international organizations address limited possibilities, unforeseen elements (tsunami vs earthquake - Fukushima), unplanned human incompetence, stupidity, error (Chornobyl) or determined destruction (remote detonation of explosives like Kakhovka Dam) that can go horribly wrong are still possibilities, and the world needs to pay more attention. The Russians, in particular, have shown incompetence. A reminder that after Russia temporarily occupied Chornobyl in Spring 2022, ussian military commanders told soldiers to dig into the topsoil surrounding Chornobyl in the exclusion zone, soil that had been dumped years ago to subdue radiation release. The soldiers in rapid time became sick with radiation poisoning, forcing the Russian army to withdraw and abandon the occupation of Chornobyl. These same military leaders, with the same limited knowledge now oversee the ZNPP. Regarding Kakhovka Dam: apparently, Russia’s plan was to blow up only a portion of the dam wall; however, they underestimated the power of water pressure, which brought down the entire dam. These are just two examples of human error that led to horrible environmental, medical, and social disasters. Dr. Kostenko made clear that the failure of international organizations to foresee either of the previous nuclear power plant disasters proves their inability to predict future disasters with confident accuracy.

*note: the American Nuclear Society has never sent or participated with a team of experts and inspectors to independently visit the ZNPP and based their July 5 statement solely on the findings of the IAEA inspectors who visited the ZNPP after the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam, which was near the ZNPP, in June.

Furthermore, the ZNPP is located in a country at war, which adds to the complexity of monitoring, prevention and in the event of a disaster, quick or satisfactory remediation. Being in a war zone is a situation that these organizations have never faced and therefore they cannot accurately measure the risk to a station in this situation. In a peacetime situation, dreadful mistakes were made to mitigate a nuclear catastrophe, so cannot expect better during a war. A situation such as this has never existed, where an invading country has occupied a NPP and is using it as a military object, as a nuclear shield. To claim that it is safe is a dangerous sentiment.

In the case of Chornobyl, because such an event was not expected, there was no preparation, and the response was chaotic. Asserting that the situation at the ZNPP is safe aids the Kremlin in sending the message that it wants people to hear, plays into Kremlin disinformation. Downplaying the possibility of an accident at the power plant could have dangerous consequences and the only way to stop Putin from is to use force and make the decision impossible for him. International pressure must make it clear that there will be personal consequences for Putin, as well as for the country. Russia is a country that does not change through diplomacy, only with force.

If the plant were to have an accident or purposeful incident, according to Dr. Kostenko, the effects would be unimaginable due to the size of the power plant. There are six reactors at the ZNPP. As a point of reference, the explosion at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant was in only one reactor and that had far-reaching consequences. The worst thing Moscow can do is to destroy cooling units. An incalculable amount of radioactive material would be released into the air. Wind patterns around Zaporizhzhia would push those particles south and southeast towards Russia, Turkey, the Middle East, and Mediterranean. Therefore, this is an international problem. Radioactive waste would seep into the Dnipro River and quickly make its way into the Black Sea. This would affect all waterways south of Zaporizhzhia and would make nearby land and water unusable. ZNPP is a storehouse of massive amounts of plutonium and uranium.

Dr. Kostenko noted that the government of Ukraine tries to maintain several sources of information about the situation at the ZNPP relying on Ukrainian army intelligence, as well as local workers who willingly supply information, workers who did not sign agreements with Rossatom, and their loyalties remain with Ukraine. For unknown reasons, either to forestall possible protest, or to stop possible leaks of information, Rossatom recently sent completely unqualified professionals to work at the ZNPP replacing the few qualified workers who remained after the occupation. He is unaware of how experts from the IAEA receive information; they are limited in their monitoring, and the Russians do not allow them continued access.

According to Dr. Kostenko, in terms of international law, currently Russian occupants are fully, legally responsible for the situation at the ZNPP. Furthermore, international law forbids negotiations with terrorists and several international organizations have identified Russian leaders as terrorists and Russian actions as terrorism. If these were times of peace, we could possible talk about preventative measures in the event of an accident. However, in a time of war, who will provide it? What country, what organization will let their workers travel into a war zone to help distribute such help?

He would like to remind listeners of claims by the occupants of ZNPP, “either this will be Russia or, in one hour, this will be a radioactive wasteland.” The West must understand that the ZNPP situation is a microcosm of Russia’s attitude, the geo-political position of Moscow is not just a threat to Ukraine, but to their countries, as well. As China rapidly unites and centralizes economic, military and political capacity into a strong dictatorship, is bringing in Russia as a partner, and is insisting that the U.S. not push Russia to disintegrate – unless the West understands these looming threats to their way of life that they have built for hundreds of years, strong autocracies will dominate the future.

First question for Gen. Hodges:

What methods can be used to dislodge Russian military forces that occupy a nuclear power plant?

According to Gen. Hodges, any Russian in the chain of command of the ZNPP should know that they will be held accountable, that they should feel tightness in the chest that the international community knows who is actually responsible if there is a catastrophe. They may be “less cavalier” if they know that someday they will sit on trial, in an international tribunal at The Hague. He advocates for the publishing of their names and photos. Important as well would be to publish a “downwind message” indicating areas and nations that could be potentially affected in an effort to further focus international attention and, in turn, apply pressure on the Kremlin. General Hodges emphasized the importance of generating economic, diplomatic, legal, and all other means of pressure on Putin and Russia. He added that he is impressed by the commitment of IAEA inspectors given the risks posed by the haphazard management by the Russian government. Currently living in Germany, he notes that Germans are very sensitive to the threat of a possible disaster; he is aware of a now older generation who almost four decades ago were young women, girls during the time the Chornobyl cloud passed over Germany and presently many have thyroid problems.

He thinks that a major part of Ukraine’s current counteroffensive will be the retaking the plant in as safe and risk-free manner as possible. He suggests that this could be achieved by isolating the plant from additional Russian forces, and forcing the Russian occupiers to make a decision to either leave the plant, “you don’t have to die here” or be held responsible. He is confident that Ukraine possesses the forces capable of completing this objective in a way that results in the least amount of collateral damage. Russians will attempt to use artillery against Ukrainian forces, so also a matter of how much risk Ukrainians are willing to take.

Responding to the question about Russia using the plant as a nuclear shield, a form of nuclear blackmail instead of missiles, General Hodges stated that this is an issue of real concern despite many experts declaring this as a non-issue. He noted Russia’s history of recklessness and lack of respect for international agencies and agreements as an important reminder of how far Russia and Putin are willing to go to destroy lives. He advocates that the U.S. “be sober and clear-eyed about asking Ukraine to negotiate with the Russians since Russians have a history of not living up to their commitments.” He expressed concern that the lack of a strong international response to the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam may have set a precedent for how Putin believes the international community will respond to other provocations. It sends a message to nations such as China, North Korea, Iran that we are vulnerable to the threat of a nuclear attack, or will not respond strongly. His concern is that when Russia sees how we hesitate, “it is oxygen for the Kremlin – works against us.”

When asked why not simply provide Ukraine with the military aid it needs and review with the admission of Ukraine into NATO later, General Hodges noted that these two events are not mutually exclusive; aid can be sent to Ukraine, as NATO negotiations continue. Admission of Ukraine is not only about Ukraine, but also about the security of Europe, which will be more secure as soon as Ukraine is admitted.

When asked how he envisions a “happy ending” General Hodges stated that this ending includes Ukraine ejecting Russia, the taking back all of sovereign territories and borders from its 1991 independence, the thousands of children who have been abducted are returned, Russian war criminals be held accountable for their crimes, Russian assets seized and utilized for the reconstruction of Ukraine, Ukraine becomes a NATO member, and the United States understands that it needs to develop a more effective strategy for the Black Sea region in the future.

He noted that recent information about an unofficial delegation meeting with Russian leadership is extremely unhelpful. “These are the same guys that have been mishandling Russia, who continue to have a romanticized notion of Russia as responsible state,” a continuation of the disastrous foreign policy of both the Obama and Trump administrations. He disagrees that the U.S. will ever be able to negotiate with Russia as a responsible nation, that Russia only respects and understands strength, and does not respect those who wish to negotiate, and will disregard any agreement unless forced to uphold it. Such unofficial meetings, while not done necessarily done with the approval from the Administration, nonetheless feed the perception “something is going on behind the backs of Ukrainians” and calls into question the Biden Administration’s commitment to “nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine.”

General Hodges reaffirms his belief that if Ukraine receives the aid they require, then they can take back Crimea by end of summer. He mentions that long-range missiles are extremely important since they would make Crimea untenable for Russian forces, as well as enable Ukraine to clear the Russian Navy out of Ukrainian Black Sea docks. The strategy would be to isolate Crimea, leave open the Kerch Bridge to give the Russians the opportunity to leave. However, he believes that the current Administration has not fully committed to the idea of a Ukrainian victory, their focus is on the avoidance of a nuclear escalation, so the necessary weapons are not forthcoming, and therefore the retaking of Crimea will likely not occur before summer’s end. He suspects that China is communicating to Washington that they do not want to see the collapse of the Russian Federation since they would like to maintain access to a supply of inexpensive gas coming from Russia. Furthermore, a collapse of an autocratic regime such as Russia exposes the vulnerabilities of China’s autocracy.

Read the entire article